Nikon’s 200-400 Zoom Lens

A Nikon 200-400 User Experience

This is not meant to be a review, there’s lots of those elsewhere if you were to search for one, but more of my own experience of this lens. Also, this site was never meant to be a gear site, and it never will be, but with this kind of post I’m hoping to add my own experiences to that of my subjects in the field too.

I once hired larger lenses like the Nikon 300 f/2.8 and 200-400 f/4 zoom for my trips, because it was cost effective, but last year I decided to grow up and get one of my own. Whether to get a fast 300, the 200-400 zoom, or a 500 was answered in part given the range of focal lengths the zoom offered, but there was also the nagging doubt associated with it of distant subject performance. But I bought the 200-400mm anyway, and it was not long before I realised that there was nothing to regret with my decision.

Nikon 200-400 VR zoom lens

Nikon’s 200-400mm f4 G VR AF-S IF ED Zoom Lens.

It’s reasonably common knowledge (to gear aficionados anyway) via the internet forums that subjects taken at more than about 50 metres distant with this lens in some cases can result in rather soft pictures. And indeed my hired example was particularly guilty of this. In fact, in my case, my 300mm f/4 with converters easily beat this with regards to performance and acuity over these longer distances.

But having said all that, over 90% of my pictures were at a closer range, and were just fine. Well, not just fine actually, but just superb. A 300mm f/2.8 with a 1.4 converter is too restricting and nonsensical while this Nikon 200-400 f/4 zoom is on offer. That’s particularly true for my kind of photography, that is for large mammals at varying distances from either me or my vehicle.

Young male lion at Moremi, Botswana, May 2010.
Taken using a Nikon D300, 200-400mm zoom lens at 260mm, f/4.8, 1/125th and ISO 360.

Click on the image for a larger, 1000 pixel view.
And click here for a section of this image at 100% view. You can see the fly’s eyes at the bottom left!

So then I grew up and purchased my 200-400, and quickly learnt that the distance shots for this particular unit were in fact quite acceptable, as opposed to my hired one which just quite simply was not. So there’s some sort of sample variation going on here, I think.

I’ve used my 200-400 fairly abundantly now, including a very rewarding trip to Botswana in May where I found practically every image was sharp, including some at middle to far distance. Remember, great distances with long lenses will often be softish anyway, particularly in hot weather due to the heat creating waves in the air.

One constant with wildlife photography is that you never know what you’re going to see next, whether it’s something small or something bigger, or whether it’s something close or something afar. I have a utterly wonderful series of pictures of a leopard encounter (I think so anyway) which would not have been so achievable if I’d used a fixed focal length lens. I would have had a few good pictures, I’m sure, but certainly not the range and variation I was able to come away with on this particular occasion. The purchase of this lens over a fixed focal length one proved itself during this 40 minute encounter alone.

Handholding requires a little heft, and while I’m not exactly small and lithe, I’d still be reluctant to hoist this around all day without a tripod. Carrying it around is easy, but hoisting it up at eye level to take pictures all day gets quite tiring. Bean bags are the perfect foil for this lens if you’d be travelling in a vehicle. Indeed, my upcoming Kenya trip may well see me leave my tripod at home.

And speaking of carrying it around, this lens comes with a neat carry bag which accepts the lens with a camera attached as well. I comfortably attached a D700 with a battery grip and a 1.4 converter and put it all in the bag, and slung it over one shoulder. This is all very compact and lighter than you might think too.

VR is very good, but I’m finding this best left off these days using either the bean bag or a tripod with a Wimberley Sidekick attached. Shutter speeds down to 1/125 are working for me at full zoom and with a converter attached, for a focal length of 560mm. But I did turn it on when using the sidekick at lower speeds like 1/45th of a second. My tripod and sidekick settings tend to be a bit (deliberately) loose, and I don’t tend to tighten everything down before I shoot.

Recently I ventured out to Richmond Park (a park near London full of deer) with the sole aim of shooting with a D700, this lens, and a 1.4 converter. I shot at a half stop down (effectively f/6.7 after allowing for the one stop factor the converter gives). They say you should shoot at a stop down (i.e f/8), but i didn’t, just the half stop, and I was quite happy with that. It’s a good thing I did this exercise, because now I can be pretty confident of using this combination come Kenya. The 1.7 converter was quite hopeless, though, but I know that if I need more reach, I can always put a D300 camera on and take advantage of it’s 1.5 crop factor.

There’s a good argument for two cameras, one with a long 400 or 500mm fixed focal length and one with something like a 70-200 maybe with a converter. I still like that argument, but right now I’m happy with my 200-400 one camera and a 70-200 on the other. Other times I might attach the D300 to my 300mm f/4 with a converter because that works really well for me for an effective 630mm option or should I have any remaining doubts about the far off distance shots when using the 200-400.

I use the first release version of this lens, and recently version II became available. But I’ve not seen the new one, let alone used it. However everything I write here applies to both versions, from my understanding and from what I’ve read about the new one.