Nikon 200-400mm VR vs. 300mm f2.8 II

Since there are a number of reviews on the web that that cover each of these fine lenses individually (see links at the bottom of this page), the intent here is not to duplicate these efforts but rather to compare these two potent lenses and draw some conclusions which may help existing 300mm owners decide whether to trade up and to help potential owners decide which lens might better suit their needs.

Update:  If you own the 200-400mm lens, please check that your CL-L2 soft case is not affected by the recall.  More info. 8/9/9

300mm, 200-400mm, 70-200mm

From left to right: 300mm f2.8, 200-400 VR f4,
and 70-200 VR f2.8 (for size comparison only)

300mm f2.8 IF-ED AF-S II -- The Legend

This lens has a well known and well deserved reputation: fast, sharp, heavy, and works well with teleconverters, particularly the TC-14E. In short, the standard by which others are compared.

200-400mm f4 IF-ED AF-S VR G-- Legend in Making

This recently released lens (and still scarce) has earned high praise from early reviews ("it already is slated to become a legend in its own time", Bjørn Rørslett). While not intended to replace the 300mm AF-S f2.8 II, the comparisons are inevitable. This lens is bigger, heavier, and one f-stop slower than the 300mm, but offers the flexibility of a wide zoom range and the stability of VR (Vibration Reduction) which, to some extent, can offset the speed disadvantage.

Contrast and Sharpness

Let's get right to the point and compare the two lenses. The following photos illustrate the contrast and sharpness of the 300mm and 200-400mm at various f-stops. All enlargements are 100 x 100 pixel sections taken from a NEF file of the scene below. The 200-400mm has VR on.

Test image @ 300mm taken with 200-400mm

Test photo taken with D2h and 200-400mm @ 300mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f5.6

  300mm f2.8 200-400mm f4 @ 300mm
f2.8  
f4
f5.6
f8
f11

At 300mm, both lenses are very close.

  300mm f2.8 w/ TC-14E (420mm) 200-400mm f4 @ 400mm
f4
f5.6
f8
f11

Not surprisingly, the 200-400mm performs much better than the 300mm + TC-14E at 400mm.

Update: This conclusion has been controversial on various web discussion forums.  If I still had the 300mm, I would like to repeat the test with my D3 and be able to optimize the performance via the lens fine tune adjustment (which was not available at the time of the original test).  Also, based on my five years of experience with the 200-400mm, and owning a 200mm f2 VR and 500mm f4 VR, I suspect I have a excellent copy of the 200-400mm lens (perhaps I can compare these lenses in a future review).  While I can't rule out that my 300mm was sub par, it did consistently produce terrific images. (6/7/9)

Teleconverters

We've already seen how the 300mm works with the TC-14E, how about the 200-400mm and TC-14E? Frankly, I have not used TC's enough with the 200-400mm to draw any conclusion. Nevertheless, I can offer the following photo from the field and some test photos with a 1.4x and 2x TC's. 

200-400mm + TC-14E @ 560mm, f5.6, 1/640 

The photo is cropped and the insert is a 100% view of the bird's head. The exposure was wide open (f5.6) at 1/640, ISO 200, tripod, Sidekick head, at 560mm. The NEF file was processed in Capture 4.1 with Unsharp Mask of 66%, 5%, 4 levels.

The following links are full sized jpg images (about 0.5m bytes each), ISO 200:

No TC Nikon TC-14E (1.4x) Kenko Pro 300 (2x)
200mm f4 400mm f5.6 400mm f8
400mm f4 560mm f5.6 800mm f8

Given the quality of the test shots, I'm tempted to try both TC's in the field.

Focus Speed

A fast focusing lens is critical when the subject is rapidly moving as sports and nature photographers know. Unlike sharpness, I cannot show you a photo of focus speed nor can I measure it in any tangible way. All I can tell you are my impressions. 

Focus speed is not only a function of the lens, but the camera as well. My observations are based on using the lenses with a Nikon D2h, Nikon's newest high speed camera body, that incorporates the CAM 2000 11 point autofocus system.

Under bright conditions, I would rate the focus speed of the 200-400mm to be equivalent to the 300mm. The only situation where you might notice the difference is when using focus priority and shooting continuously, the 300mm seems to shoot at a faster rate. This would indicate that it is acquiring focus more quickly than the 200-400mm. 

As the light gets dimmer, the edge in focus speed goes to the 300mm simply because it is a brighter (faster f-stop) lens. If you regularly shoot under low light conditions, then the 300mm has a definite advantage.

My impressions are based on shooting a number of Little League and Babe Ruth baseball games with both lenses. Each lens yielded a very high percentage of technically excellent photos. In total, I've probably taken over 5,000 photos with each lens.  I look forward to using the 200-400mm this winter when I photograph the much faster action of ski racing and can compare the results to the 300mm.

Handling

Kirk Enterprises LP-47 replacement foot and standard footThe 200-400mm at 14.1" in length (18" with the hood on) and 7.2 pounds is larger and heavier than the 300mm by 3.5" and 1.5 pounds. Despite the added size and weight, I feel it is as easy to handle as the 300mm. This is due to in part to the better balance that is achieved when the Kirk Enterprises LP-47 replacement foot is installed. As you can see, the LP-47 is longer than the stock foot which makes carrying and maneuvering the lens much easier. 

Acratech Ultimate BallheadI was concerned that the added weight would stress my Velbon 630 tripod, Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, and Wimberley Sidekick that I had used with the 300mm. However, this combination worked fine with the 200-400mm.

As with all lenses of this size (300mm f2.8 and up), one must be careful when securing the lens to the head. The greatest risk is when the lens is removed from the mount as the lens tends to slide weightlessly out of the clamp until suddenly the full 7 or more pounds are resting in your hands. If you aren't careful, the lens can drop an inch or two at this point, meaning you are at risk of having the lens hit the tripod head.

Wimberly Sidekick head

I also extensively use a Bogen 3245 monopod with the lens. Unlike the 300mm which I could on rare occasions hand hold, I find the 200-400mm lens just too big to shoot without support.

Cases

Front and back view of Nikon CL-L2 lens case for 200-400mmTransporting a lens the size and value of the 200-400mm does take some care. The lens comes with the CL-L2 soft case which, unlike the 300mm CL-L1 case, cannot easily hold the lens and camera. Since I usually do not want to arrive at a shooting location and have to attach the camera, I prefer transporting the camera attached to the lens. So like most other Nikon lens cases I have collected, the CL-L2 will see little use.  CL-L2 recall.

 

Lowepro Lens Trekker 600While the 300mm fit snuggly into my Mini Trekker backpack, there was no way that the 200-400mm + camera could fit in, so I decided to upgrade to the Lowepro Lens Trekker 600, which is a great pack. This pack easily devours both the camera and lens. The case is large enough to hold both with the lens hood attached (i.e. not reversed), albeit snuggly.

The pack is comfortable to wear and is fully adjustable as are all high end Lowepro backpacks. The front pocket is large enough to hold the Sidekick head and a tripod can be attached along the side. 

 

Interior view of Lens Trekker 600 with 200-400mm (lens hood reversed) and D2hWhen I photograph sporting events I can use the carabiners you see in the photo to attach the pack to a chain link fence. This makes it easy to quickly drop off the long lens and pick up another camera/lens combination. It also serves to keep the case off the ground, and thus out of the dust.

For those that own a Pelican 1600 case, the camera and 200-400mm will fit comfortably in it.

Controls

200-400mm controlsThe controls on the 200-400mm lens are similar to other Nikon AF-S and VR lenses. The lens' VR performance will be discussed in the next section. 

The one new feature introduced with this lens is the Memory Recall (MR) function. With MR you can focus on a location, record the focus setting using the Memory Set button on the right side of the lens, and then later recall this focus setting by pressing one of the four focus operation button at the front of the lens. The main limitation of this feature is that the focus point will change slightly if the focal length is changed (more so at the long end). I haven't had much use for this feature as normal focusing is fast enough. I can certainly foresee conditions where the MR capability would be useful, especially under low light conditions where normal focusing might be too slow.

Vibration Reduction

The 200-400mm incorporates Nikon's latest version of Vibration Reduction (VR) technology which can now be used when the lens is mounted on a tripod, a capability Canon lenses has featured for some time. Hopefully the new VR will work its way into Nikon's other long lenses.

As with other Nikon VR lenses, there are Normal and Active VR modes (the latter for use when on a moving platform like a car, boat, or plane). I always use the 200-400mm in Normal mode. I've never turned VR off and never had a need nor opportunity to try the Active mode. 98% of my photos are taken with a monopod and the rest on a tripod, and I can't think of any that were blurry due to camera shake. VR works. Turn it on and and forget it.

Update:  After using the lens for more than five years I now only rarely use VR when shooting outdoors under bright lighting conditions and using a monopod or tripod.  I will use VR when shooting handheld or under poor lighting conditons. (6/7/9)

Hood

HK-30 lens hoodNormally hoods don't deserve much mention, but it is nice to see that Nikon has paid attention to the details. The 300mm hood, like the 400mm f2.8 AF-S hood, secures to the lens by tightening a thumbscrew that presses four metal ribs against the lens. This design eventually results in the front end of the lens getting scratched at the mounting point.

With the 200-400mm, this design has changed.  The HK-30 hood now has a smooth plastic collar that encircles to the lens. No more metal on metal. The hood is secured with a thumbscrew that presses a plastic pad against the lens. Again, no metal on metal, so the chance of scratching the lens body is greatly reduced. 

Conclusion

Both the 300mm and 200-400mm are outstanding lenses. Which one is best for you depends on your shooting needs and budget.  The 300mm is the "bargain" lens with up to $800 rebates currently (June 2004) bringing the price down $3,600. A good used 300mm like I acquired can be found in the $2,400 - 3,000 range. The lens is faster, lighter, and smaller than the 200-400mm, has stellar optics, and focuses very quickly. There is speculation that Nikon will bring out a VR version of this lens and this could depress the current version's resale value. The recently announced 200mm f2 VR lens (280mm f2.8 with TC-14E) could be an indication of things to come.

The more expensive ($5,500) 200-400mm offers the flexibility of a zoom and the stability of VR. Optically the large lens is equal to the 300mm f2.8 at 300mm and superior to the 300mm + TC-14E combination. Focus speed is excellent.

If you already own the 300mm and decide to "upgrade" to the 200-400mm, rest assured that your existing tripods and monopods should work fine with the larger lens. However, do budget some funds for a bigger backpack or case to transport the 200-400mm.

While I loved the optics of the 300mm f2.8 AF-S II, I did find its fixed focal length limiting when shooting sporting events where my position was fixed and the subject was often too close or too far away. The 200-400mm f4 VR G eliminates that problem and allows me to offer my customers a broader mix of photos and this is why I switched. The only time I miss the 300mm (which I have sold) is when the light gets low. When this now happens I just switch to my 70-200mm f2.8 VR G lens and move a closer to the action (if possible).

200-400mm with D2h

More Photos

300mm ski racing photos

300mm baseball photos

200-400mm baseball photos

Posted 6/24/2004. Updated 6/7/2009, 8/9/2009.