Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 EDIF AF-S VR


The review that took seven years the first time (I was quicker the second time)

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Lens Formula
24 elements in 17 groups, with 4 ED elements.
Other Features
manual/autofocus switch, internal focus, 52mm drop-in filter size. VR (both active and normal; VR II on the newer version), rubber seals, set/recall focus function. Comes with HK-30 hood, CL-L2 case. 9-blade rounded aperture. Focuses to 6.2' in manual and 6.5' (2m) in autofocus on the original version, 6.4' in manual focus or 6.6' in autofocus on the new version. Nano coating on the newer version. M/A and M focus modes on original, A/M, M/A, and M on the newer model.
Size & Weight
About 14.5" (365mm) long, 7.2 pounds (3275g) old version, (3360g) new version
Price
US$6299 street old version, US$6999 street new version


In April 2010 Nikon introduced a new version of the 200-400mm. The primary changes for this new version were Nano coating, bringing the VR up to Nikon's new four-stop, tripod-detecting standard, plus the addition of the A/M focus mode. We also lost a tiny bit of close focus range and gained a smidgen of weight and nearly 10% in price. But otherwise, optically and physically the lenses are identical. Set side by side you'd have to look close to figure out which one is which. Things that changed in this review for the new version will be highlighted in blue in this main review text (lots of small things changed in the specs and right-hand column, but I didn't want to throw smatterings of blue all over the place. Overall my recommendations and ratings did not change.

Before you get caught up in this review--which as someone put it, reads a bit like a detective story--please take a long hard gander over at the Quick Evaluation in the right column. It seems that some people think I'm completely panning this lens, yet right there at the top of the right column are the words "Recommended." The lens performs well, sometimes spectacularly well, but not in all circumstances. A shortcut to understanding this lens might be this: it doesn't work so great as a wildlife lens where you are shooting at long distances often or need TCs, but it works great for most sports.

Yes, this review is overdue. I've been using the 200-400mm since it first came out in 2003. Here it is 2010 and I'm just getting around to reviewing it. What gives?

As some of you who've seen my posts on various Web fora know, I've had a love/hate relationship with this lens. My opinion on this lens has changed back and forth several times, and I'll need to explain that in order for you to understand.

At first I was using the 200-400mm on a D2h and I loved it. It was everything that I expected and needed, and had I actually finished my review in a year, it would have been an absolute rave. But then I got a D2x. In the course of several sessions using the 200-400mm with that camera I found the results wanting (more on that in a bit). At some point I enlisted my assistant in the study of this lens and the Nikon autofocus system, especially since he was complaining about some results of a shoot in Denali with his 600mm and seemed to be having a similar problem to what I was seeing on the 200-400mm. At the time, we were both using D2x bodies, so we suspected the camera.

By the time 2007 rolled around and the D3 and D300 came out with autofocus fine tuning, I thought that I might find the answer to my issues there. Well, maybe. I certainly was getting better results most of the time, but I still didn't have a handle on what was going on. Fast forward through the D700 and to the D3x and still more use of the lens and...well, I'm still going to equivocate a little bit when we get to performance, though I have a much better idea about what's going on.

In short, I was unsure of whether it was the lens, my sample of the lens, my technique, my camera body, or something else that was causing the slightly different results I got as I used this lens. Note that when you get into the long telephotos and start using them on targets large and small, both close and far, a lot of variables start coming into play. One variable that some people using these lenses aren't aware of is simply surface heat. When you're shooting in warm climes and the ground heats up, you get heat waves coming off the ground that can interfere with light waves and impact optical performance, especially on more distant objects where there is more heat waves to shoot through. Because one of the things that I was experiencing was far focus issues, I had to rule out heat waves, which isn't an easy thing to do, as it turns out. Even shooting in winter doesn't always absolve you of this issue--I've seen heat waves coming off roads in the sun when the ambient temperature was below zero.

Basically, it seemed like each time I thought I had a handle on what was going on, a new camera came out and a new wrinkle was exposed. Thus, the delay in getting to this review. If you're going to spend US$6299 on a lens, you'll want to know exactly how it performs, and it took me a long time to get a full handle on that.

Note that I kept using the lens during this six year+ period. Indeed, I've taken it to Africa, Bosque, Denali, Yellowstone, and a host of other places where I shoot wildlife, and multiple times to some of those. I wouldn't keep using a lens that I had a question about if I felt that it had a truly serious problem. Nevertheless, the inconsistency of some results kept me from writing a review. I really didn't want to write a review that said "really good lens but sometimes not so much" without being able to get to the heart of that. Suffice it to say that I've tested my sample of the 200-400mm more than any other lens, and I've tried several other samples at least once. I think my results are now consistent and I can speak with some authority about what I see and perhaps even why.

The new version of the lens was tested directly against my old copy, using the same support setup, body, and targets for testing.

The Basics
It may surprise you to know that the 200-400mm f/4 isn't a completely new concept by Nikon. Way back in 1984 Nikon started making a 200-400mm f/4 ED lens (manual focus). It was actually a bit heavier than the current version, and a bit more awkward to use (it was a very big push/pull design). But those that used it thought very highly of it. As with the current lens, it represented a nice compromise between reach and other factors.

The current version of the lens has basically everything Nikon puts in a lens: ED glass, internal focus, VR, drop-in filters, rubber weatherproofing seals, hold focus buttons, the ability to return to a predetermined focus point, 9-blade aperture, and fast AF-S motors. The only missing element is Nano coating. You really can't complain about the feature list.

The fixed f/4 aperture means that the lens is a bit slow for 200mm, but perfectly fine for 400mm, where you'll likely use it most. For most subjects you'd shoot at 400mm, you'll get some depth of field isolation, though not like you get with the f/2.8 exotics (especially true on DX bodies). However, note that f/4 means that really only the TC-14E teleconverter falls within the realm of Nikon's autofocus specs (the TC-14E on this lens makes for a respectible 280-560mm f/5.6)--anything above f/5.6 as a maximum aperture in theory should be outside the autofocus specs. In practice, however, I've found that the TC-17E and TC-20E are usable on the 200-400mm, but barely. Focus and optical performance is definitely compromised with the TC-17E, and focus performance is compromised with the TC-20E III (you can't trust tracking). I wouldn't recommend using the old TC-20E with the lens, as autofocus is completely unusable and optically the results aren't good.

The 6.2 feet (2m) close focus distance is decent for 400mm, a bit long for 200mm. Shooting wildlife in Africa there have been times I've been too close to use the 200-400mm, believe it or not. Likewise, on sidelines of games there will be times when you zoom out but the action just gets too close to you. But that's pretty rare. A word of advice, though: figure out where 6.2 feet (2m) is relative to your position when you're using this lens and the subjects can move towards you. If you're covering sideline action, you probably should be that far off the sidelines, anyway, but I've seen folk get into focusing trouble because they didn't anticipate a close-in subject.

The lens has plenty of focus markings, but no depth of field or infrared focus markings. Foot markings are in yellow, meters in white, but being behind glass I sometimes have trouble seeing the foot markings in certain types of light.

You'll find six switches on the lens:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

  • M/A, M: the universal AF-S switch that allows you to switch between autofocus with manual override, or just manual focus. The new version adds an A/M switch that helps guard against accidental focus change via the focus ring (i.e. delays the switch to manual focus).
  • FULL, infinity-6m: a focus limit switch that allows you to tell the lens not to use the 2m to 6m focus range during autofocus operations.
  • VR On, Off: the main Vibration Reduction switch, controls whether it is operative or not (Vibration reduction is somewhat self cancelling on tripods).
  • Normal, Active: let's you set the VR mode. Normal is what you usually use, but you should switch to Active if you are shooting from a platform that contributes additional irregular motion (auto, boat, plane, etc.).
  • AF-L, Memory Recall, AF-On: this three position switch allows you to switch the behavior of the buttons just in front of the focus ring to either lock focus, to force focus to a previously set distance, or to trigger autofocus.
  • Beep, No Beep: Provides audio feedback for focus behavior.

In addition, there is a button labeled Memory Set which is used along with the Memory Recall. You set the focus position with Memory Set, you get that last setting back instantaneously by pressing the focus buttons on the lens with Memory Recall set. The beep function is actually mostly there to help provide feedback as to when a distance is stored in memory (one beep for stored, two beeps for recalled). Unfortunately, this is not a true zoom lens. Thus, if you set focus at one focal length and then zoom, you may need a slightly different focus position (the lens will beep twice short, then three long if this is the case--welcome to the Morse code of lenses).

The lens comes with a light-but-sturdy hood that can be attached backwards onto the lens for carrying. The lens cap is the usual Nikkor cloth contraption nobody likes. Filters are via a 52mm drop-in slot at the back of the lens, and Nikon supplies a standard NC filter (they claim that the filter is part of the optical formula, though I find this a little difficult to understand as it is the last bit of glass before light gets to the sensor). At the front of the lens, there's the usual protective glass element, which can be removed (more on this in a bit).

The build of the lens is rock solid, and is weather sealed at the mount. Build quality is Nikon's old pro level.

The lens is made in Japan.

Handling
Plenty of people say you can handhold this lens. Yes, you can, but it's painful to do for any length of time. First, the lens is heavy. But it's also very long (over 18" from front to back with hood on), so you're supporting a lot of that weight well away from you. Basically, you need to get your hands in front of the focus ring to shoot with this lens hand held. The other option is the rest-in-the-crook-of-your-elbow postion, but I don't like that with this lens as it means you're shooting with a slight twist to your body. Neither position can be done reliably for any length of time, and twisting while holding weight isn't exactly recommended. Thus, invest in a decent monopod (and consider adding the Really Right Stuff monopod head). You'll be glad you did.

On a tripod this lens has the common long Nikkor problem: too much tripod collar movement. If you overtighten the tripod collar adjustment, you can get most of that slop out, but I suspect that this just exacerbates the problem long term (the adjustment knob gets looser and looser over time). The best solution to this problem I've found is the Really Right Stuff Lens Support Package, but that'll add another US$290 to your bill--it'd be nice if Nikon would just get designs right in the first place.

Don't doubt me on the tripod collar issue. The results I've been getting with the RRS Lens Support are visibly better than without it. Indeed, the RRS Lens Support allowed me to remove the last variable from the equation and come to a real conclusion about this lens. At 400mm and any modest distance from the subject, even the tiniest bit of slop in your mount can impart motion into your pixels you don't want. The acid test is this: with your rig completely locked down on your tripod, try tapping on the front of the hood relatively hard. If there's any up/down motion at all after the tap, that'll show up in your images, guaranteed. The trick is to figure out where the motion is coming from. After you eliminate it from the legs (GT55xx will do it, GT35xx is at the margin) and the head, you'll discover that it's that pesky tripod collar that's the problem. Nikon's supplied foot for the lens is a little short, in my opinion--they appear to have designed it to fit the center of gravity of the D2/D3 series bodies. If you're using it on a lighter body, you might want to invest in a longer foot. Indeed, if you hand carry the lens, you might want one of the longer feet. Both Kirk and Really Right Stuff make reasonable candidates that give you a little more mounting flexibility and are easier on the hands for carrying. Again, for a US$6299 lens, you have to wonder why you end up spending another US$500+ to fix the flaws. I have to wonder if the folk that design these products actually really use them in the field.

Speaking of flaws, the Nikkor lens cap for long lenses is the traditional big cloth-with-drawstring. And it's annoying in many respects. Fortunately, my assistant found a plastic cap that fits the 200-400mm near perfectly (I had to add two small bits of material on the inner lip to make sure that it fits super tight. But boy is it a joy to use compared to Nikon's solution. If you wish to support this site and its reviews, you can find this cap at B&H at this link. Adorama also sells the Don Zeck cap for the 200-400mm, but it doesn't fit perfectly.

As you might have noticed from the comments on Memory Set in the Basics section, this function is near useless unless you always shoot at the same focal length. The only time I've found it useful is when I know I'm always shooting at 400mm. Even then, you have to give up focus lock via the front buttons to use it. An interesting concept, but not fully thought out, in my opinion. And speaking of focus lock, don't dismiss this feature. If you're using continuous autofocus, there are times when you might not want the focus to follow a subject but stay where it is (consider one bird of many taking off, for example). One thing I've learned to do with the big lenses is micro manage them. I've usually got AF-ON set instead of the shutter release for focus on my camera body (thus I can turn focus on and off at will). But when I don't, I use the focus lock button when I want focus to stay in one spot. And I use the focus override capability of the lens a lot--the viewfinders on the pro cameras are just barely good enough to know when you need to do this, so make sure you've got your diopter setting dialed in right. With these tweaks, I use the automated focus system to do the crude work and I constantly finesse it to get a finer degree of control. Unfortunately, this isn't something you pick up in a day. You really have to practice these things because they all interact to some degree. But my hit rate is higher than if I just relied on the autofocus system by itself in a constant mode.

The ring action for both zoom and focus is pretty good, though not superb. After six years of use, mine has some slop to it I'm not sure Nikon can get out through servicing. The focus ring, by the way, goes almost 360 degrees to get from minimum focus distance to maximum. This couples with what I wrote in the previous paragraph: if you fine tune the focus manually, you have a very large degree of adjustment available to you. Even on subjects a fair distance away from you your focus tweaking can be measured in millimeters if you've got a steady hand. That I like very much. Indeed, I'd be complaining about it if it weren't so.

Zooming action goes from 200 to 400mm in less than a quarter turn. That's probably the right decision, too. You'll find that you want to zoom fast with moving subjects, and you don't need to move the ring much to do so.

While the two rings--and strangely, a stationary part at the front of the lens--have different hatching patterns on their rubber, I don't find that to be helpful because the difference isn't distinct enough. I almost always find the focus ring by feel by the slight outdent from the zoom ring.

I should also note that I've often used this lens with gloves on. Sometimes multiple layers of gloves. Unless you have to set the switches, all handling is glove friendly.

Overall, handling is slightly awkward for handholding due to the large size and weight of the lens, but on a tripod I find it perfectly fine (other than the issues I mentioned).

Performance
This is one lens that even Canon users lust after after reading the specs, so how's the performance?

Before I call out individual attributes, there's one thing I should mention: this lens is not f/4. Let me correct that: this lens is not t/4. (A t-stop is the actual transmitted light, an f-stop is the theoretical light transmission.) Actual performance is somewhere around t/5. This is somewhat normal for a zoom lens with complex optics (each air/glass surface is less than perfect in transmitting light), but it's going to be a real issue for many users of this lens. This is one of the reasons why teleconverters aren't a great choice on this lens. Even with a TC-14E the lens is approaching t/8, which is outside Nikon's AF specs.

Autofocus: With the high-end telephoto Nikkors, autofocus performance is generally more due to the body than the lens. The silent wave motor in these lenses is high torque and the lens designs themselves minimize element movement for focus. Thus, the lens is generally not the bottleneck for focusing. Indeed, using this lens was one of the ways I first noticed the gaps in the D2 series autofocus system. When my subject was dead on one of the T sensors or covered multiple sensors, the lens was snappy fast. When my subject was small and landed in or near the dead zone between sensor coverage, autofocus performance suddenly lagged. In general, a subject on a cross sensor on any Nikon body will be brought into focus very quickly, almost instantaneously if the focus was already close. With the line sensors it'll depend upon the body and subject matter. I've noted that some types of subjects don't focus well with the outer sensors on the CAM3500 cameras, for instance. But again, this isn't a lens issue, it's a camera issue.

I've used this lens on both static and fast moving subjects, and I'm always surprised at how fast the lens can snap in focus on the latter (assuming the camera is up to it). Basically, I have no issues with the focus performance. Moreover, if you're working with subjects that have repeating patterns (runners on a track, for instance), you can use the focus set/recall function to quickly snap focus back to a specific point. I've used this with wildlife, too. Once I set the focus to an empty osprey nest, then went looking for the bird flying in the sky. I tracked focus on the flying bird, but as he returned to the nest I just snapped the recall function to get focus for his landing at the nest. In case that isn't clear: creative use of the additional functions of this lens can get focus set on a known distance near instantaneously, and that's useful if you're going back and forth between following a moving subject and coming back to a set point. But remember, you can't zoom if you're using the focus memory function.

Sharpness: Here's where the lens baffled me. The short story is this: at close distances, the lens dazzled me with as-good-as-it-gets acuity. At long distances, not so much. I first noticed this in Denali. My shots at a beaver pond where I was able to set up in the bush quite close were superb--every hair on the beaver's back was distinct. But my shots of grizzlies, taken at an obviously longer distance, didn't show the same clarity. 30 feet (10m) and in, I loved the lens. 300 feet (100m) and out, I hated the lens. In between, well, sometimes I liked it, sometimes I didn't.

At first I thought this might be a camera or focus issue. Maybe my camera was not locking focus quite right at distances, or maybe the detail was getting lost due to small issues with camera movement or VR. Maybe it was heat waves interferring. I actually had my camera (D2x at the time) checked for focus issues. None detected. Curiously, I saw slightly different aspects to close/far focus performance on different cameras. The D2x and D2xs were the worst offenders (all distant focus 400mm shots had a lack of acuity). My D90 and D300 were the least offenders (but all distant focus 400mm shots still were subpar compared to close up results).

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Up close, yes, the lens is wicked sharp (so are those teeth).

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
At distance with teleconverter (and certainly wide open as here), the lens sometimes fails to get the kind of acuity we desire. It's like the optomitrist flipped the wrong correction in front of our eye, as nothing quite resolves into focus.

This led me to a long session of AF Fine Tune recently. I tried tuning the lens at different distances and shooting different targets (I even bought a small stuffed bear that I could position at distance to test "hair acuity" with). After one heck of a lot of testing, I think I can describe the optical characteristics of the 200-400mm pretty well now. Basically, my initial impression was right, but there were camera components that intrude and make it tougher to get a clear handle on the problem. Put simply: at very long distances (300 feet or longer) the lens performs slightly less well than at shorter distances. Note that this implies something for teleconverter use, too, as you generally are using teleconverters for more distant subjects.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "hey Thom, dude, what are you smoking; no lens is going to resolve bear hair at 300 feet." Well, you're wrong. My 400mm f/2.8 VR does. Indeed, now that I have the two and can shoot them side by side, it's clearer than ever to me that the 200-400mm isn't a distance lens (and even less so with a converter, but more on that in a bit). Where that crossover between superb (closer focusing) and adequate (far focusing occurs), I'm still not positive about. I know a lot of sideline shooters that have the 200-400mm and love it, so shooting across the width of a football field must still be in the realm of "close." Shooting the length of the football field puts you in the "far" category, though.

This explains why so many people thought I was nuts when I first wrote that I thought the 200-400mm had some sort of sharpness issue: most people weren't shooting with it at distances that would trigger the problem. But National Park service regulations keep us wildlife photographers at long distances from some animals (e.g. grizzly), so I was occassionally seeing the poor end of the 200-400's performance.

I will say this: proper AF Fine Tuning and removing the protective front filter both improve things a bit for far focus use of the lens. It still doesn't quite match my 400mm f/2.8 at longer distances (it does at shorter ones), so neither is a perfect solution.

So, at sideline and close animal approach distances, the 200-400mm is a real winner. It's dead on sharp and quite impressive. But watch out when your subject is far off--the lens starts to let down a bit on resolving power as you approach infinity focus.

I mention all this because some of you will be tempted to use converters on the 200-400mm to give it more reach. Here's the thing: that means you're likely shooting at longer distances from the subject. So you trigger the "far focus fade" as I've come to call it. That plus the acuity loss from the converter itself can put the combination beyond what I call usable. Indeed, I've pretty much stopped using converters with this lens. Even when I do, I won't use a TC-14E on the 200-400mm without stopping down a stop, as the lens isn't as tolerant of the old converters as the other Nikon exotic telephotos. And, as I've already mentioned, only the TC-14E really keeps things within the realm of the Nikon autofocus performance specifications anyway. That means you'll be shooting, at best, with a 560mm f/8 lens (one stop for the converter loss, one stop to recover some performance). That may sound okay to you, but the same converter on the 400mm f/2.8 doesn't require stopping down to obtain top performance, so you're two stops slower with the 200-400+TC-14E than you would be with the 400+TC-14E (actually, a bit more, since the 400mm f/2.8 starts at about t/3.2). And less sharp. As much as I like the convenience of the zoom, I now realize that I'm giving up something optically, too.

So I'm putting some caveats on this lens for best possible performance: use it at close to modest distances. Don't try to extend it with a converter. Consider removing the protective glass for anything but the closest distances. (But note that the protective glass is there because it's much less costly to replace than the actual front element of the lens. Don't remove the protective glass unless you're certain you're not in conditions where things might harm the front element. Fortunately, the hood is so deep (almost 6") that with it on the glass is reasonably well protected, but don't make the decision to remove the protective element lightly.)

Now for some good news: the lens is sharpest wide open, and it doesn't really lose much performance until diffraction starts to take resolution away (as early as f/8 on the D3x). So don't be afraid to use it wide open. Even with the far distance issue, f/4 is the best aperture. Likewise, performance at 400mm is still excellent (performance is slightly better at 200mm). Most telephoto zooms are weak at the longest focal length, but I'd say that the 200-400mm holds up very strongly throughout its range, with 400mm being only marginally softer than the lower focal lengths. Another big plus: center and corner performance is remarkably close. This is not a lens that goes noticeably soft in the corners like the 70-200mm does. DX users can rejoice even further: you're only using the center of the imaging circle, so corners are about as good as you can ever expect.

I'm only going to present some 400mm results here, but other focal lengths showed similar tendencies:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan center f/4

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan center f/8

Notice that the center is sharp both wide open and stopped down. There is some loss of contrast wide open, but sharpness is not in question.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan corner f/4

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan corner f/8

In the corners, things are a bit different. As you stop down you lose a bit of sharpness in the corners, though you get very little vignetting.

The new version of the lens exhibits pretty much the same sharpness tendencies as the original. At close distances it is superb, while at great distances it is not. There are very small differences between my two samples in sharpness, but the differences are small enough they are well within sample variation. I will say that my new version is not quite a tack sharp as my old version. It's a very small difference, and one most people wouldn't notice, but it's there. While I haven't been able to test any other new 200-400mm lenses yet, at this time I'd have to chalk up anyone reporting any optical difference between the two generations purely to sample variation. I'll work at trying to verify that over time, but again, the differences between my two samples are minutely small--they constitute no more than a 1% difference on MTF tests, but they are consistently skewed towards the older lens, which leads me to my sample variation conclusion.

Light falloff: There's noticeable corner vignetting wide open, which is mostly gone by f/8. Generally, I haven't found the vignetting to be a problem. The type of subjects you'd usually shoot with this lens actually benefit a bit from the darker corners at f/4.

Chromatic aberration: Very consistent and at very low levels across all the apertures and focal lengths. Surprising for a zoom lens, actually. Those four ED elements are doing their job.

Flare: Use the hood and flare is almost never an issue. Don't use the hood and you'll see a clear drop in contrast using this lens. I also see a slight contrast boost in removing the protective front element.

The one place where there is an observable difference to the older model is in backlit scenes. The new Nano coating does seem to increase contrast a bit in such situations. Enough to be visible, not enough to get excited about.

Distortion: close to zilch. I can't get an accurate measurement for linear distortion off my test charts, as it's well less than a half percent (barrel).

Bokeh: There's just a teeny bit of complexity to the out of focus areas at smaller than the maximum aperture that keeps me from saying the bokeh is excellent. I'm not sure where that's coming from, as the lens uses a very well-rounded 9-blade aperture, and there's no real chromatic aberration issues that would cause that. Some of it may be VR artifacts, as I can see a difference when using VR versus when not using VR. Thus also leads me to think that the complexity may simply be camera motion issues: if you have a near subject and a distant background, the optical center of this lens is so far out from the camera even a little camera movement fulcrums the distance a good bit.

Other: Another strange bit to the 200-400mm is that its color transmission properties are little bit off from the other exotics. The glass in the 200-400mm seems to transmit a bit more blue than expected. I'm constantly having to do minor tweaks to my 200-400mm shots with white balance because of this.

My final observed difference isn't really so much a difference between the older and newer models, but between older and newer teleconverters. Simply put, I was very surprised at the results with the TC-20E III on both the old and new version of the 200-400mm. Note that I had concluded that teleconverters were not a strong point of this lens: the only usable one at the time I originally wrote the review was the TC-14E and that needed to be stopped down a stop to get what I felt were acceptable results.

The TC-20E III, however, was a huge surprise. On my original 200-400mm wide open I would call the optical performance superb. On my new 200-400mm wide open I would call the performance very nearly superb. In both cases the TC-20E III shot wide open delivered better results than my TC-14E closed down a stop. There's some kind of magic in that TC-20E III, and you notice it immediately with either 200-400mm. Autofocus is still haphazard with the TC-20E III, though, as you're at f/8 and beyond the stated specs of the Nikon system. Still, I found it usable for many static test subjects, and contrast based AF with Live View seemed to always work just fine. You cannot rely on the lens to track focus dependably with the TC-20E III on it.

Let me put things in perspective. At about the distance at which I think the 200-400mm optical performance starts to decline (200-300 feet) with the TC-20E III on, I was reading small lettering off the ID plate of a transformer, and the edges were crisp. That was not true with the TC-17E on the lens. Not even close to true.

Compared to the 400mm f/2.8
Surprisingly close at 400mm f/4 for near to moderate distant subjects. But the 400mm f/2.8 is better, no questions asked. Thus, the question is whether the image quality compromise is small enough that the other compromises (price, weight, size, handling) factor in the 200-400mm's favor. Based upon which lens I keep taking to Africa, I'd say yes. You don't give up a lot, but you gain some ability to handhold in an emergency, the flexibility of a zoom, and a smaller and lighter pack.

Finally, the 400mm f/2.8 tolerates all three TCs well, while the 200-400mm tolerates only the TC-14E and TC-20E III acceptably, and with limitations for each. If you think you'll need more reach than 400mm, the 200-400mm+TC is not the best solution, in my opinion.

I should also report that the 400mm f/5.6 (an AI-S lens) also outperforms the 200-400mm at longer distances in my experience (though not at shorter distances). That's assuming that you can focus it carefully enough, since it is a manual focus lens.

Don't Get Me Wrong
Note that despite my misgivings about very long distance use and teleconverters, I still use this lens a lot. It's what's known as a "trade-off lens." You're trading off some things (long distance, TC use, slower aperture) for other things (smaller, lighter, useful zoom ratio). It's surprising the things that aren't sacrificed in the tradeoff (image quality for the most part, focus speed and reliability). But there is a tradeoff. I've seen others write about how great this lens is, as if it had no drawbacks at all. Sorry, but it has some very specific ones. It may be the way in which it is being used by others that masks those drawbacks. That said, I'm obviously willing to make those tradeoffs much of the time.

Drawbacks

  • Near-sighted. Up close a gem. Shooting far distances, not so gem-like.
  • Mostly TC-phobic. Not a lens that tolerates all teleconverters well. You can get by with a TC-14E only (emphasis on the "get by"), and the TC-20E III operates well optically. All other TCs are suspect.
  • Pricey. The recent price hikes have now pushed the 200-400mm out of the affordable range for more folk. This makes the lack of an updated AF-S 80-400mm even more obvious.

Positives

  • Otherwise flawless. For close-in subjects, you give up next to nothing except aperture against the 400mm. Or the 70-200mm at 200mm. Or either 300mm. That's pretty remarkable for a complex zoom.
  • Perfect Safari lens. Fast enough to remove distracting backgrounds most of the time, long enough to pull in subjects you can't quite approach, versatile enough to zoom back for the big animals, just small and light enough to manage in a Land Cruiser.
 
Quick Evaluation

Recommended

But be wary of long distance shots and teleconverter use.

Absolute Scale:
features
focus speed
optics
build

Value Scale:
features
focus speed
optics
build

overall value

The high price of the lens means that when measured on value, the primary aspects all suffer a bit. But on an absolute scale without cost being considered, most of the aspects of this lens are near as good as one can expect.

Nothing important changes in my assessment between the initial version and the II version, with the possible exception of shooting into the sun, where the Nano coating does seem to help.

 

Limitations


This 200-400mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

Converters: TC-14E and TC-20E III are the only converters I can recommend. With the TC-14E you need to stop down one stop to get optimal results. Surprisingly, with the TC-20E III, the wide open results are quite good, better than the TC-14E wide open. But the TC-20E III does not reliably autofocus with the 200-400mm due to the f/8 effective aperture, and it certainly cannot be used for tracking autofocus.

The TC-17E and older TC-20E versions also put the maximum aperture beyond the Nikon AF standard, thus they too have reduced autofocus performance. Unfortunately they are not particularly great in optical performance, even stopped down. I can't recommend them.

Coverage Area: No limitations. Covers the DX, FX, and 35mm film image area.

Version of Review:
2/11/10: initial post.
8/2/10: version II updates

Source of Review Unit:
I: Purchased via NPS priority purchase program.
II: Purchased on open market.




bythom.com | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at thom_hogan@msn.com


All material on www.bythom.com is Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized use of writing or photos published on this site is illegal, not to mention a bit of an ethical lapse. Please respect my rights.