ORIGINAL POST DATE: 12 April 2010.
UPDATE #1: 2 February 2014: See "Update: 4, 5, or 6 Ways to 400mm?" immediately below.
Since I originally produced this article back in April of 2010 Nikon has produced two lenses that provide additional options for large numbers of users to "get" to 400mm: the "new" AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR and the 70-200mm f4 VR (when used paired with the TC-20EIII - or 2x - teleconverter). I don't have the time (or the inclination) to completely re-do all the testing to produce a brand new "6 ways to 400" article, but I have now tested the new lenses extensively at 400mm and - fortunately - can easily "slot them in" to this review. Here's my thoughts on the new lenses and how they relate to the main body of this article:
The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR: Optically, at 400mm this lens performs very, very similarly to the 200-400mm f4 VR - my testing of these two lenses "head-to-head" showed them to be in a virtual dead-heat in terms of sharpness. So as you are reading the rest of this document consider the 80-400 and the 200-400 as a tie. You can view the complete field test of the AF-S 80-400 right here.
The AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter: One of the many strengths of the "new" 70-200mm f4 is that it pairs up well with teleconverters. And it pairs up BETTER than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII does (translation: it produces sharper shots at 400mm than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC). In the report below it would always rank just ABOVE the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC but BELOW all the other lenses or lens plus TC's combos. At this point I have not produced a final review of the 70-200mm f4 VR, but you can find information on how it performs at 400mm against several other lenses right here in my review of the AF-S 80-400mm VR.
Will there be further updates to this article? If Nikon comes up with the appropriate lenses (e.g., a new 400mm f4 VR) during my lifetime - yes!
In early 2010 I "re-distributed" my Nikon lens investments a little, which is a fancy way of saying I sold one or more lenses and bought one or more lenses. I did this to have more options in the 400 to 600mm focal length range, which is where I generate the bulk of my revenue. At about the same time, Nikon released a much-improved version of their 2x tele-converter (the TC-20EIII - my field test for this TC here), which opened up many more ways for me (and many, many nature photographers) to get to 400mm. With the plethora of options to 400mm, the following question came to my mind: Which 400mm option would work best for me in any given field situation? Thus the field tests, thus this field report.
Here are the "four ways to 400mm" that I had in my lens collection in winter 2010 and those I compared:
1. Nikkor 400 mm f/2.8 VR: This prime lens is considered by many to be one of Nikon's best telephoto lenses.
2. Nikkor 200 mm f/2 VR plus 2x TC-20EIII teleconverter: This prime lens is also considered one of Nikon's best and is known for producing very good results when paired with teleconverters.
3. Nikkor 200-400 mm f/4 VR Zoom (@ 400mm): This hugely popular, and very high-quality, lens has become almost a "staple" among Nikon-using wildlife shooters. Its performance at 400mm compared to the other options will be of interest to many (it sure was for me!).
4. Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII (@200mm) plus 2x TC-20EIII teleconverter: Introduced in late 2009, this lens has already developed a strong following and I have found this lens to be far superior to its predecessor when paired with teleconverters (see my field test of this lens, including its performance with TC's, here).
There are two lenses that arguably are missing from this field test: the 80-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 VR and the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (original version) plus the 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter. This is because I no longer own the "old" 70-200 f/2.8 VR and have never owned the 80-400mm. While this is only educated speculation on my part, I don't think there are many who would argue that these two lenses (or lens combinations) would be battling it out for last spot if they were included in this test.
A few words about my field testing protocols:
I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for ME (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I'm not paid to test equipment, nor do I receive my gear for free. I test them under field conditions ONLY (no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While I do some of my testing very methodically, much of it is pure "field shooting". I do NOT shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of wildlife (or "proxies", such as my Portuguese Water Dogs) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get the results I need to sell images! While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products is real only in a statistical sense (and has no real correlate in producing a quality image, which is NOT a pure science). There ARE tests I rely on - for instance, I find dxomark.com's published values for "Low-Light ISO" performance are almost always close to what I consider "acceptable image quality" (in terms of noise), and thus they have a real-world correlate for me.
When it comes to THIS test, I was forced to be a little more rigid in my testing protocol, and consequently ending up shooting many hundreds of shots of VERY boring subjects, such as as distant hills, trees in a forest, and stumps. This test involved NO hand-holding of lenses or other "normally used" field techniques that I will employ on a regular basis. Here's a quick list of conditions/constraints of my testing:
1. All tests shot made with a Nikon D3s supported on a Gitzo 1348 tripod and Wimberley head. All images shot using a cable release and mirror-up mode with a minimum of 5 seconds between mirror lifting and shutter release.
2. All images (with all lenses) shot with VR off. Note: Whether or not one should turn the VR on or off when a Nikon camera/lens combo is mounted on a tripod varies with lens used and the stability of the support system. Turning the VR on for some lenses and off for others would have introduced an uncontrollable and confounding factor to the results. So in all instances the images were captured when the VR OFF.
Because of recent, reliable reports of some lenses performing well at some focal distances and not others (e.g., the 200-400 reportedly performs better optically when focused on near objects compared to distant objects - see Thom Hogan's review), I captured test shots at 3 very different focal distances: Long Distance (focused at approximately 1 kilometer); Moderate Distance (focused at approximately 45 meters); and Short Distance (focused at 5 meters). I chose these distances because they have a correlate with MY real-world shooting. I DO use a 400mm lens on occasion to photograph distance landscapes or animalscapes ranging anywhere from 500 meters to many kilometers away - think that "old" layered mountain scene (like this shot) or some animalscapes (like this shot). And, I use a 400mm lens VERY commonly to photograph wildlife at moderate distances of about 25 to 75 meters (as many, many photographers do) - probably 2/3 of the images in my Mammals Gallery were shot in this range. And, it's not at ALL uncommon to shoot small mammals and birds at a short distance of about 5 meters.
At all distances tested I shot images at ALL available apertures of the lens or lens/TC combo.
I make no claim about the generalizability of my results - but they do tell ME what lens or lens/TC combination I should use for most photographic situations where I would need a 400mm lens. I suspect that the results MAY be of use to others who might be looking for a way to get to 400mm with their particular camera.
First the Executive Summary, followed by Way More Detail, and then Reality Check: Real World Applications
All those who have forked out a small fortune to purchase the 400mm f/2.8 VR lens can rest easy - this lens out-performed all others tested in image sharpness, resolution, and contrast at all distances tested. But, my second choice of what lens I'm going to grab out of my bag varied with the subject-to-camera distance. At long distances (starting at around 500 meters or more) the 200 f/2 VR paired with the new TC-20EIII placed a solid second. The 200-400 f/4 VR and the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII with 2c TC-20EIII performed very similarly but I give the slight edge to the 200-400 (but only by a hair - please see the "Way More Detail" section below for specifics). At moderate distances (45 meters) the 200-400mm f/4 VR faired better and edged into second spot for me, with the 200 f/2 VR just behind in third. I rate the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII paired with the TC-20EIII combination as coming in 4th at moderate distances. At short distances (5 meters) all combinations of lens or lens/TC combos performed well and they would come out of my camera bag in the following order: 400mm f/2.8 VR; 200-400mm f/F VR; 200 f/2 VR with TC-20EIII and 70-200 f/2.8 VRII with TC-20EIII.
In summary, the most expensive lens in this test performed the best at all distances. And, the results of most of the tests vary almost directly with the retail purchase price of the lenses - in general, if you paid more you DO get more performance! BUT, at the distances these lenses (or lens/TC combos) will be most commonly used at, the differences in real world performance are really quite small. Users who need absolutely the best performance (or push their equipment to the limits, such a shooting in very low light) may be able to justify the expense of getting to 400mm with a 400mm f/2.8 VR. But an awful lot of people are going to be capable of producing some pretty impressive 400mm results using a FAR cheaper solution, such as the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII plus the TC-20EIII!
To me, this field test drove home 3 important "keep in my head at all times" results.
1. Use my 400mm f2.8 VR Whenever Possible! At all distances tested this lens came in first in resolving power, edge-to-edge sharpness, and contrast. The difference in image quality between this lens and the three others was most evident at long distances, but noticeable at all distances.
2. Stop Those TC's Down - A Little. When I paired either the TC-20EIII with either the 200 f/2 VR or the 70-200mm f2/8 VRII and shot the lens wide open the results were FAR worse than the results with comparable apertures on the 400mm f/2.8 VR AND the 200-400mm f/4 VR. But stopping down by single stop only brought the 200mm lenses into contention with the "true" 400mm lenses. So...if you can't afford to lose the stop, forget using the TC-20EIII. But if you can live with the 1-stop loss, it's hard to argue against the TC approach!
3. At Most Distances the Differences AREN'T Huge. a critical thing to keep in mind when viewing these kinds of tests (and results) is the subject-to-camera distance you're likely to be using the lens at. I probably use a 400mm lens for long distance scenes more often than the average user (after all, it IS a bit of a weird thing to do). But it matters to me. However, MOST users will likely use a 400mm lens for distances of 75 meters or less. While I didn't specifically test a distance of 75 meters, the diffrence in the results from BEST (the 400mm f/2.8 VR) to WORST (the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR) simply weren't that great for distances of 45 meters and 5 meters. I would be surprised if there was much difference in these results at up to 75 or even 100 meters.
A. LONG DISTANCE RESULTS:
1. View representative sample of images shot at long focus distance (composite JPEG file: 700 KB). NOTE: These sample images are being provided simply to give the viewer an idea of the range of image quality differences between all four lenses (or lens/TC combos) in the central portion of the frame. The area shown in each image is an area of roughly 600x600 pixels from the center of the image - even the "edges" of these samples are from the central region of each frame.
2. I shot sample images using all four lenses (or lens/TC combinations) while focused at a distance of approximately 1 kilometer. Sample images were shot at 1/3 stop increments from "wide open" through to f16.
Some of the trends were very clear: At all apertures the 400mm f/2.8 VR produced images of better resolution, central AND edge-to-edge sharpness, and contrast than the other three 400mm "lenses". Both combinations that involved the use of teleconverters did poorly when shot wide open - the resultant images were unacceptable for most uses. However, stopping down by a single stop put these lens/tc combinations "back in the running". In fact, at f5.6 and smaller I ranked the 200 f/2 VR plus 2x TC-20EIII in second place - this combination produced images that were reasonably close in quality to those of the 400mm f/2.8 VR and definitely better than the two zooms (again in resolution, central and edge-to-edge sharpness, and contrast).
Ranking the 3rd best result was challenging. If one looked ONLY at sharpness (and contrast) near the center of the image, the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII plus the 2x TC-20EIII out-performed the 200-400mm f/4 VR. And, it should be pointed out, the 200-400 did rather poorly (compared to ALL other competitors) in contrast. But, when I looked at image sharpness in regions away from the center of the image (roughly 1/2 the distance from center to edge) the 70-200mm f/2.8 faired quite poorly - and by the actual image edge the sharpness and resolution of the 70-200 plus TC was plain bad! It's my thinking that if edge-to-edge sharpness is ever critical when shooting super-telephoto lenses in nature photography, it's when shooting distant scenes. So, for this reason I would elevate the 200-400 zoom ABOVE the 70-200 plus TC in long focus distance performance. But, given the option, I would definitely turn to either the 400 f/2.8 VR or the 200mm f/2 VR plus TC first...
3. LONG DISTANCE SUMMARY: If I had all four lenses (or lens/TC combos) to choose from here is the order they would come out of my bag: 400mm f/2.8 VR; 200mm f/2 plus 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter; 200-400mm f/4 VR; 70-200mm f2/8 VRII plus 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter.
B. MODERATE DISTANCE RESULTS:
1. View representative sample of images shot at moderate focus distance (composite JPEG file: 857 KB). NOTE: As above, these sample images are being provided simply to give the viewer an idea of the range of image quality differences between all four lenses (or lens/tc combos) in the central portion of the frame. The area shown in each image is an area of roughly 600x600 pixels from the center of the image - even the "edges" of these samples are from the central region of each frame.
2. I shot sample images using all four lenses (or lens/TC combinations) while focused at a distance of approximately 45 meters. Sample images were shot at 1/3 stop increments from "wide open" through to f16.
Again, some of the trends were very clear: At all apertures the 400mm f/2.8 VR produced images of better resolution, central AND edge-to-edge sharpness, and contrast than the other three 400mm "lenses". And, again both combinations that involved the use of teleconverters did poorly when shot wide open - the resultant images were unacceptable for most uses. However, stopping down by a single stop put these lens/tc combinations "back in the running". Overall, though, the difference in image quality from best to worst was smaller than when this test was performed at long distances. At this shorter distance the 200-400mm f/4 "jumped" in relative quality. If one judged ONLY the central portion of the image, then it just edged out the 200mm f/2 plus 2x tele-converter (but just!). However, the 200mm f/2 plus 2x TC held its sharpness better as one moved from the central portion of the image to the edge (and noticeably so). Deciding which lens to rank second and which to rank third is subjective - in most instances when I'm shooting at this distance with a 400mm lens I'm shooting wildlife and I'm slightly less concerned about edge sharpness than I am about sharpness closer to the centre of the frame. So, for me, the 200-400mm f/4 VR ranks second and the 200mm f/2 VR plus TC third. But both DO produce very good results.
The 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII plus 2x TC ranked fourth again, but it is important to note that the difference in image quality from 1st place to 4th was far less significant at this distance. Any photographer who can use Photoshop could easily sharpen the "worst" results at this distance into a VERY usable image!
3. MODERATE DISTANCE SUMMARY: With all four lenses (or lens/TC combos) to choose from here is the order they would come out of my bag: 400mm f/2.8 VR; 200-400mm f/4 VR; 200mm f/2 plus 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter; 70-200mm f2/8 VRII plus 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter. The difference in image quality between these four combinations is reduced compared to when shooting at long distance and all four combinations can produce VERY usable results.
C. SHORT DISTANCE RESULTS:
1. View representative sample of images shot at short focus distance (composite JPEG file: 732 KB). NOTE: As above, these sample images are being provided simply to give the viewer an idea of the range of image quality differences between all four lenses (or lens/tc combos) in the central portion of the frame. The area shown in each image is an area of roughly 600x600 pixels from the center of the image - even the "edges" of these samples are from the central region of each frame.
2. I shot sample images using all four lenses (or lens/TC combinations) while focused at a distance of approximately 5 meters. Sample images were shot at 1/3 stop increments from "wide open" through to f16.
Clear results, but one confounding variable: When focused this closely, the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII undergoes focal length shortening and thus is NOT a full 400mm when paired with the 2x TC. This focal length "breathing" (as some call it), is part of the optical design and improves optical performance when focused at short distances. Regardless of this trend, and ignoring the results of the tests involving TC's when shot wide open, the results were quite clear to me. Again, if one judges image sharpness and contrast (resolution becomes quite irrelevant when focused this closely - so many pixels cover such a small area that resolution issues are virtually non-existent for most image uses) the 400mm f/2.8 VR placed first. But nipping at it's heels both the 200-400mm f/f VR and the 200mm f/2 VR plus 2x TC, respectively. The 70-200mm f/2.8 VR plus 2x TC was a little farther back, but still produced acceptable results.
4. MODERATE DISTANCE SUMMARY: The order out of my bag is: 400mm f/2.8 VR; 200-400mm f/4 VR; 200mm f/2 plus 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter; 70-200mm f2/8 VRII plus 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter. The difference in image quality between these four combinations is reduced compared to when shooting at long distance and all four combinations can produce VERY usable results.
The 400mm focal length is quite important to many wildlife shooters. With the release of the new 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII and the new TC-20EIII tele-converter Nikon shooters now have many decent ways to get to 400mm. This is very good news. But the better news is this: for many uses the means to get to 400mm produces results that aren't all THAT different. And, anyone even reasonably proficient in Photoshop use wouldn't have too tough a time producing very good output using any of the four lens or lens/TC combinations discussed in this test. The exception to this is when shooting long-distance landscapes or animalscapes - in these cases neither the 200-400mm f/4 VR OR the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII plus 2x TC really works well. BUT (and I think this is VERY big but), how many users really use 400mm lenses for this purpose? I don't think too many...
Of course, if one is looking to acquire a 400mm lens option practical "real world" factors intervene. The first is cost. The best performer in this batch is the most expensive - by several thousand dollars. And, it's WAY heavier and bulkier - so much so that most users would NOT carry it around in the field (I do, but I'm well- known to be a glutton for punishment). The 200-400mm f/4 VR is considerably lighter and performs quite well at moderate distances and VERY well at short distances. And, it offers the convenience of a zoom. But it still costs around $6k or more (depending on the market you live in). The 200mm f/2 VR offers amazing image quality when shot with no TC and VERY good performance when shot with the 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter. But it's quite bulky (the word "stubby" comes to mind) and heavy for a 200mm lens. And it costs around $5k. And then there's the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII. Way smaller and lighter than any of the other three. And thousands cheaper than any of the other lenses used in this test. And, performs well with the TC-20EIII. Yep, it placed fourth in ALL tests reported on this page. But in most cases the gap was NOT huge. I find it VERY hard not to recommend the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII for most users. I know that on my daily hikes that will be the combination found in my sling pack 90% of the time!
Closing comments: Those that have paid thousands and thousands of dollars for 400mm f/2.8 VR can rejoice in its amazing quality at all focus distances. Those owning either the 200mm f/2 VR (and the TC-20EIIII) or the 200-400mm f/4 VR can be happy that they have a very good 400mm option for MOST uses. And those looking to buy a reasonably priced, and very portable, 400mm option have a viable choice with the 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII paired with the 2x TC-20EIII tele-converter - it most day-to-day option it will produce very acceptable results AND you're much more likely to actually have it with you!
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