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.
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?”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Get it if you have the following:
- Money and lots of it
- 400 2.8 that is going up on ebay next week
Don’t get it if you have the following:
- A nagging husband or boyfriend or parents
- 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.
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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