Demystifying the world of sports photography

Ryu: AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II Review

On the road again and that should not come as a surprise to you folks. Currently on the TGV heading towards Paris from Marseille. Last night was my first ever OM v PSG a la France Classico and it did disappoint. Meaning, I was disappointed that I shot the PSG end for 90 minutes and observed the goals thrice from the other end. But all was not lost as e as I test drove the 200-400mm f4 MKII with D3s. No, I haven’t shipped my wife to some oil baron and I haven’t sold both of my kidneys. Nikon France NPS (the best in the world) was kind enough to lend both of them to me, because they love me. Maybe not, but I’m sure they felt sorry for me as I’ve been fattening their coffer by inundating them with my repair bills.

My first ever gear review in writing, so be harsh on me.

1. Heigh and weight
One thing I won’t do is give you numbers. Numbers mean NOTHING as A) I’m not an engineer B) I’m not a DP review user who shoot birds and their children C) I failed calculus in high school. 200-400 is longer and lighter than the 400 2.8. This will be the main comparison in this review as I am considering replacing my 400 2.8 (one before VR) with the 200-400. Anyway, it won’t fit in my Think Tank Airport International vertically and I had to lay it diagonally. Just as having pentagonal room in the house, this created rather unpleasant space issues in the bag. This is a non-issue if you have a half-way decent space perception. Since I’m used to handling the 400 2.8, it felt odd to have something longer and thinner. Yes, it’s considerably thinner than the 400 2.8. It’s as if I’ve gone from fondling a plump woman to an emaciated one. On the other hand, if you have been using 300 2.8, you won’t be as surprised as I was as for girth of it is very similar to 200-400. It’s considerably lighter than the 400 2.8, which is always welcome in my world of sports photography.

2. Price
Let’s get this out of the way. If I broke, lost, or given it to some Marseillaise bum on the street, Nikon would charge me 7500 EUR. Don’t be lazy and go convert that into your currency. The street price is lower and should be around 5000 EUR. In any case, it’s expensive and it’s not a lens you can buy without your husband finding out about it. “Honey, what happened to Joey’s junior college fund?”.

3. Sharpness
If you have been using the old non digital lens from Nikon and if you have recently switched to the digital ones, you know what I’m talking about. One was made for film and the others made specifically for digital. My first “Say what?” moment came when I switched from 17-25 f2.8 to 16-35 f4. The sharpness at any given aperture was night and day. Same goes for this lens. Compared to my 400 2.8, this lens is so much sharper that it makes my head spin. Okay, it doesn’t but it’s sharp.

4. Handling
Now we’re getting into the meat of this lens. It feels like using a 70-200mm f2.8 with a slight weight problem. It’s a problem because the zoom ring uses a twist mechanism and not the forward and backward one which I would have preferred. With all my zoom lenses, I control the zoom ring only with my thumb. By flicking the zoom ring with my thumb instead of turning it with my entire left hand, my hand stays in one position. With the 200-400 we have entered the awkward hand zone. Not so much first date awkward, but 2nd date saying goodbye at her door awkward. Whether it’s the stiffness of the zoom ring or my thumb being not powerful enough, I cannot spin the thing just with my thumb. I had to resort to grabbing the zoom ring with my entire left hand and turning it awkwardly. To add more awkward into the already awkward situation, since your left hand is on the zoom ring at all times, your hand it is not in a position to control the focus manually. You might be wondering why you would want to manually focus anything when you have autofocus at your disposal. Autofocus may have a higher IQ than me (not difficult), but it doesn’t have my street smarts. Sometimes I need to adjust the focus manually and having to reach out to the focus ring which is beyond the zoom ring is another awkward moment. No, not first time getting naked in front of someone other than your parents awkward, but awkward nonetheless.

5. Focus
Rob, this is probably what you wanted to know. This thing focuses like a mo’ fo’. The only shots I missed last night were from human error, which happens quite often. It is awe inspiringly quick, not just for a zoom lens, but even compared to the latest primes. I was shooting at ISO 5000 1/800 f4 last night. As these numbers suggest (because “a bit dark” could mean different things to different people in different countries), it wasn’t the ideal lighting situation, but the focus was quick and dead on. Obviously for plays that was going side to side, it had no problem tracking and focusing. The biggest test came when the play came towards me. 80% of the shots were in focus and I had my focus lock-on at its lowest setting and therefore depending on how you shoot, you might even get better results. To put it into perspective, this focuses faster and more accurately than my 400 2.8. One other major advantage over the 400 2.8 is the minimum focusing distance. 2 metres v 2.9 metres. Since I like to shoot them as close as possible whenever possible, having a shorter minimum focusing distance is totally rad.

6. Zoom
The only reason you want this lens over the longer primes (400 2.8 or 300 2.8) is that you want the zoom. The strength of this lens is evident when the play is coming towards you. It allows you to keep on shooting for longer without switching to your other camera with a wider lens. But if the play is happening right in front of your face (ie 3 metres in) and you want to get the entire action without decapitation, you may want to switch to your wider lens as 200mm is too tight. I believe this one is a matter of preference, but having this 200-400mm range allows you to play it safe if you have cropping in mind. To me, this is a double edged sword as I can see myself getting lazy and shooting more at the wider end than trying to go for a tight shot. As long as I use it as an insurance and not as a crutch, it should be alright.

7. D3s
Get this lens IF you own a D3s. If you don’t, go on a nice holiday. If your sporty shoots occur mostly during the day, like my Jewish partner with his American sports, then this is a no brainer as D3 or even the D2x will get the job done. But if you are shooting indoor sports or if you shoot football in Scotland, you need to have the D3s. There is a stupendous gulf between f4 and f2.8 especially if you are shooting sports with a non-D3s body. As I’ve pointed out earlier, las night’s match was shot with ISO 5000 1/800 f4 and this was made possible because of D3s. I can’t imagine how high I need to crank up the ISO in order to shoot in a high school gym.

Conclusion

Get it if you have the following:
- Money and lots of it
- 400 2.8 that is going up on ebay next week
- D3s

Don’t get it if you have the following:
- A nagging husband or boyfriend or parents
- Debt
- Hobby other than sports photography

The aforementioned disadvantages (awkward zoom ring, need for D3s, oh and that’s about it) by no means outweigh the advantages of this magnificent lens. This could become a game changer for lots of sports photographers and maybe I can keep mine for further testing.

Probably not as I’m returning it today. Damn it.

Ryu

Update: I have been asked whether VRI (the generation prior to VRII) is as good as the VRII.  Not to disappoint you, I asked around for some hard evidence.  Two different sports photographers from different countries have told me that the VRI has problems focusing in low light situations and that VRII is better at doing this.  It’s best you pony up the extra to get the VRII if you want one that functions indoors and in the dark.  If you’re only going to be shooting outside and during the day, save yourself some pretty pennies and go for VRI.

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8 responses

  1. Eli Raiden

    Great review I would say.It seems like a super versatile tool,only problem as yoy said is the aperture and the requirements it needs to work.I obviously wont be getting one but Im definitely excited that Canon is going to release theirs soon.

    November 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm

  2. Ben

    I picked up the 200-400 f/4 in August to compliment the 300 f/2.8 I had been using. It certainly is a great tool as you saw because of the versatile zoom range. I have to say though in less than daylight conditions I thought the focus was ever so slightly slower than the 300 f/2.8 (the new version, VRII) and ever so slightly less exact sometimes. It was at least enough to notice anyway, but by no means a deal breaker. I definitely used it at night baseball games and I don’t hesitate to do so, but I don’t really enjoy needing to use ISO’s of 2000+ all the time because of the reduction in sharpness and focus speed compared to the newer f/2.8 lenses. That being said it’s a fantastic lens and will certainly get the job done well for most situations, but there are noticeable differences between focus speed and sharpness compared to the new f/2.8 lenses.

    Also, for sports it doesn’t work with teleconverters as well as the f/2.8 lenses. With my 300 f/2.8 I feel fairly confident using it with both the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters (making it a 420mm f/4 or 600mm f/5.6 lens), but I can’t say the same thing with the 200-400 f/4. So if you think you may want to go beyond 400mm, the f/2.8 primes provide a little better versatility if used with teleconverters assuming a fixed focal length is suitable for your needs at the time.

    Bottom line, I do really like the 200-400 f/4 because it basically opens up photo opportunities with its zoom capabilities that don’t exist otherwise, but it does have limitations. Good review of the lens Ryu.

    November 28, 2011 at 11:00 pm

  3. Ben

    Oh and when I bought the lens I just told my wife UPS left it on our doorstep like an abandoned baby and it was my job to see that it was given a good home. It was the only humane thing to do after all, ha.

    November 28, 2011 at 11:23 pm

  4. Eli,

    Yes, the biggest selling point of this thing is its versatility. Just being able to shoot 400mm and with a awkward twist of the wrist go 200mm is a luxury. What does concern me is the f4 and as I’ve said, I’ll consider getting this when I get my D4. :)

    Ben,

    My comparison of this lens is the AF-S version of the 400mm f2.8. So it’s a generation older than the current VR 400mm f2.8. Suffice to say, the 200-400 focused hell of a lot faster with better accuracy compared to my 400 2.8. So, if you noticed a lag compared to the 300mm f2.8 VRII, then that lens must be mighty fast. :) I’m fine with the speed that this one provides and I rarely use teleconverters which is a plus for me. As you mentioned, the flexibility this lens offers is unprecedented.

    Ryu

    November 29, 2011 at 8:47 pm

  5. Ben

    I should clarify, it only lagged in focus speed/accuracy compared to the 300 f/2.8 VRII in night conditions (stadium light). During the day the 200-400 is definitely lightning quick. I love using that lens during the day for sure.

    November 29, 2011 at 8:57 pm

  6. Ben,

    If I can give you a medal for the “most charitable sports photographer of the year”, you know I would. We should all look up to you with respect and envy as you take your 200-400 and raise it as your very own. I would like to have had the chance to use it inside, like basketball or some other indoor sports, but I guess I will have to buy it to test it out.

    Ryu

    November 29, 2011 at 11:38 pm

  7. Ben

    It was just a joke I told my wife to break the ice when it arrived so she didn’t flip out. She’s very understanding though, so I wasn’t in too much trouble.

    Ben

    November 30, 2011 at 12:53 am

  8. Good to know. You don’t want to get in trouble with your wife over a lens. :)

    December 2, 2011 at 8:30 am

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