Update 2017: A lens I owned for many years and it never let me down. Sharp and very practical thanks to the ability to zoom, it’s a lens I was sad to eventually see go. Although replaced with the newer MKII version, this older MKI shares the same optical formula as the VR II version. That makes the original Nikon 200-400 an excellent lends to buy on the second hand market, if you are able to pick up a good copy.
Read on for my original review…
I first saw one of these lenses ‘in the metal’ at my friends house years ago and my initial thought was ‘That is stupidly big, how could you carry that around all day?‘. And I think that tends to be the thing that shocks most new or potential owners most, as in your head you just don’t associate a zoom with something thats going to be this big and heavy. Read on to see my opinions on some of the more frequently asked questions from potential owners…
Weight: 3.18kg (7lbs)
Height without hood: 15 inches (38.1cm)
Height with hood: 18.7 inches (47.5cm)
Width: 4.5 inches (11.4cm)
Closest Focus: 2m in AF, 1.95 in MF
Whenever I want a new lens I read as much as I can about it, looking for example images, owners comments etc. So I decided to write up this FAQ based on my thoughts about the lens. I haven’t really covered the technical side as there are a million and one in depth reviews out there that have already done that. Instead, I wanted to talk about what it’s like from a day to day perspective and just answer some of the questions I myself had before I purchased one.
What’s in the bag?
The lens comes with it’s own soft carry case, the CL-L2, which can also be used to carry around the 500/4 and 600/4 lenses. In fact, at the moment it’s exactly what I use to carry my own 600/4 in. The bag itself has three bits of removable padding although I keep all of them in with the exception of the smallest piece which is used to go around the lens near the middle/top to stop and potential for wobble. However with a DSLR attached, there is no movement anyway.
The lens also comes with a clear glass filter to protect the large front element. This can be unscrewed to cut down on weight and it comes with it’s own little carry pouch which zips closed.
The supplied bag is very useful although I did have my reservations about it at first, but you can read more about that further down.
Can you handhold it & does VR help?
That seems to be one of the most frequently asked questions about this lens but the answer isn’t really clear cut as it depends on your own strength. I personally don’t mind carrying it around without a tripod as I almost always find something I can use for support, be it a tree, fence, wall, the ground, my knees (sitting on the floor with my legs pulled in towards me, knees to my chest) or of course a beanbag. In fact once, I even used a friends shoulder! The VR helps big time when your using less than sturdy support and whilst it won’t help freeze the action, it certainly lets you get away with much slower shutter speeds for slow moving objects. I think a monopod makes a very good accessory to this lens as between that and the VR you should find it pretty easy to hold the lens still enough without a tripod, in most situations. Its a heavy lens though, there are no two ways about it and once you add a D3 to the back of it its heavier still. It is however very well balanced, which does help – unlike the 600/4 whcih is very much a front heavy lens. So can you hand hold it with no support? Well I’ll sum it up like this…after 30 seconds or so the VR starts earning is money! Below is a shot to show the size of the 200-400 compared to the 70-200, so if you find the 70-200 a bit much to carry round you should definitely think twice about its bigger brother…!
Is it awkward to carry around?
Something that needs to be taken in to account when thinking about buying one of these lenses is the fact that you don’t want it to sit there at home because its too much effort to bring it out with you. That was a concern for me when I first got mine. But, here’s the thing, if you have the right bag for the job then carrying it about is absolutely fine. The standard bag is perfect for storing the lens + camera but really no good for carrying it around for any length of time, with aching neck and shoulders kicking in pretty quickly. This at first put me off wanting to carry the lens about so if my above linked solution isn’t possible or too costly for you, make sure you budget for a good quality bag to go alongside the lens.
Update 2017: My goto bags are now either the ThinkTank Photo Streetwalker Harddrive or the Mindshift Gear MP-3. Both of which would fit the 200-400 with no problems.
Is it any good for birding?
Well you can never have enough reach and for small birds 400mm just isn’t enough….but the answer here depends very much on how close you can get to your subjects, do you mainly use a feeding station, a hide etc?. If you have a feeding station set up then obviously yes, this lens will do just fine. But if you like to take your images out in the wild and shoot smaller species then this lens may not be ideal and something with a little more reach is probably what you should be looking at. Don’t forget though, on a DX body such as the D300 you are effectively getting a 300-600mm f4 VR lens which I’m sure you’ll agree isn’t too shabby, although even then not always enough. On the only two FX bodies currently available, the D3 and D700, things aren’t quite as easy and if you plan on getting frame fillers out in the wild you are going to have to practice your stalking techniques to make up for the lack of DX crop factor, something that was driven home to me when I moved from a D2x to the D3 and subsequently resulted in me getting a 600/4. The below shot was taken with the D3 and 200-400 at 400mm, the shot is full frame and is of a wild female Chaffinch.
Does it perform well with teleconverters?
I’ve done a seperate write up on my experience with the 1.4x TC, which you can read about here.
I also have done some brief testing with the 1.7x TC, which you can read about here.
To give you a brief summary…using the D3’s focus adjustment feature the results were far better than the ones I had previously managed with any TC’s on my old D2x. Without a TC on the lens is every bit as sharp as all the other comments and reviews you have no doubt read, will testify to. The one thing you obviously need to be aware of is adding a teleconverter to the lens slows down the auto focus and you will have to stop the lens down a little to get some sharpness back so your going to need good light to really get things working nicely. So the question of TC performance really comes down to personal taste, for me, the 1.4 is acceptable when I don’t want (or can’t) take the 600 with me. The 1.7x I’d use in an emergency.
Convenience of the zoom & close focus
For me, the reason for opting for this lens as my first long lens purchase was the zoom factor. I don’t only shoot wildlife and decided at the time a prime lens would a) be more expensive but b) limit me more with shooting other subjects. I also first used this lens with a D2x so I was effectively getting a 300-600 f4 thanks to that DX crop factor and that was enough reach for me. I have used my lens to shoot everything from wildlife to people…and…thanks to the lenses very good close focus ability you can even get some semi-macro shots with it so all in all a very versatile lens indeed! Also the ability to zoom out to acquire your target then zoom back in has been a life saver on a few occasions too.
So knowing what I know now would I buy this lens again? Absolutely, yes. For me its been a great addition to my collection as I think it would be to anyones. The optics are incredible even wide open at 400mm and it is more than usable with a TC attached if you really need that extra reach and have reasonable light. If you shoot larger birds, animals or sporting events then I wouldn’t hesitate for a second in recommending this lens as the ability to zoom can be a life saver at times and the VR, whilst no good at freezing fast action, can sometimes give you that little advantage you need when shooting slow targets in low light. I’ve shot wildlife, people and even panoramic images with this lens so it truly is a versatile bit of kit!
However, if your main subjects for shooting are small birds then you may find yourself slightly limited unless your prepared to put in more ground work for getting closer to your subjects undetected. Whilst I find the optics with a TC usable, some may not like the results. So if your only going to buy one lens and it’s a choice between this with lots of TC use or a 500 or 600/4 I’d go with the prime lens. And of course it IS heavy and I think that is one of the main things you need to take in to account when your thinking about buying one of these, especially if your not used to bigger glass and are stepping up from 70-200 sized lenses.
More photos taken with the lens
Extra lens images
And here are a couple more shots to show the filter pouch as well as the filter size compared to my 77mm Nikon CPII. The front filter is so thick because it recesses in to the front of the lens. Also a shot to show the size of the 200-400 against the 70-200 & 600/4 without hoods attached (TC is the 1.4).