This review is more of an explanation of why I ultimately decided to sell this lens after owning it for a couple of months. So right there you can guess what my final verdict is on the Nikon 80-200. Which is a shame because I really wanted this lens to work out.
What it came down to for me was its glacially slow autofocus and really soft images at 200mm wide open. I had never really paid attention to autofocus speed on my lenses in the past, but my experience with this one really slammed the value of it home for me. I had owned the Tamron 70-200 2.8 and was able to live with its slow autofocus–it doesn’t have an internal focusing motor, either–but maybe my needs as a photographer have changed enough that it’s unacceptable now.
As to the softness of the lens wide open, this was the dealbreaker for me. When I saw the results at 200mm and 2.8 for the first time I was convinced I had a bad copy. Incredibly soft and hazy in addition to having low contrast. I even shipped it to Nikon for them to look at and got it back with a note explaining that, because it’s an older lens design it’s not optimized for today’s digital slr’s, blah blah blah, but they cleaned it and insisted it was up to factory specs. Well, I guess there’s that for piece of mind.
Now, It wasn’t totally crap every time at 200mm wide open; just maddeningly inconsistent, with some shots being more acceptable than others. (See samples of both full pics and their 100% crops below. Perhaps many of you will have no problem with them. All of them, except the last two, were zoomed in to 200mm on a D700. The last set, of the little girl, were shot with a D7000 at 125mm, or the equivalent of 187mm when accounting for the crop factor.) What I did notice was that it was far more consistent and really sharp zoomed out to wider than 150mm, even at 2.8. Images shot this way were very good and acceptable. Also, stopping down to 5.6 finally yielded acceptably sharp results at 200mm (that’s two full stops from its widest aperture).
In short, this can be a fine lens as long as you’re willing to work within its limits. I’m neglecting some other details about this lens that are positive–namely it’s tank-like build and its quality bokeh (something which I demand on such a lens). If you limit your zooming to wider than 150mm (or stop down to at least 5.6 at 200mm), and if you accept that this lens will never be a good sports lens (ie use it for portrait/studio work only), this lens is up to the task. Ultimately, though, I decided I needed something that I wouldn’t have to compromise on. And I decided that VR would be something I’d be better off having in the long run, as I’ve appreciated its utility when I rented the Nikon 70-200 lenses (both versions) for pro work.