One question I constantly get from our readers and I am sure many others wonder about, is which one of the super telephoto lenses to buy. The Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II and the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR II are the cheapest of the bunch under USD $7K, while the 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses are between $8.5K to $10.5K. A person spending $7K on a lens wonders if it is worth adding another thousand to get a longer, but less flexible lens, while another person might wonder which one of the long telephoto primes is the most practical on the field. It can be a tough choice, given how much positive feedback each lens gets from different photographers. Some swear by the zoom flexibility of the 200-400mm f/4 to photograph bears in Alaska, some will never use anything but the 600mm f/4 for their work and others argue that the 400mm f/2.8 is the best of the bunch, because it has the best optics and works well with all teleconverters. I wrote this review for the sole purpose of answering these questions and my analysis over the course of several months during which I worked with all these exotic lenses (except for the 600mm f/4 VR, which I could not obtain on time), along with test scenarios, was put together to provide as much valuable information on each lens as possible, to make it easier for our readers to choose the right lens for their needs. My conclusion on which lens I would personally pick is provided on the last page of the review.
Before I start talking about the lens in more detail, I would like to clarify that there is no “Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR II” as some blogs and websites claim – the current model’s exact name is “AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR” as stated on Nikon’s website. So there is only one 400mm f/2.8G lens with vibration reduction out there that came out in 2007 and it is the same one I am reviewing. The current 400mm f/2.8G already has VR II built in, which is probably why people keep messing up and using the VR II name. Nikon only puts the number II at the end of the lens’ official name (which happens to be right after the word “VR”) to indicate that it is a second revision of the previous-generation lens. For example, both the original Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR and the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR were updated with a second (II) version to include VR II and Nano Crystal Coat, so their model names changed to “AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II” and “AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II”, respectively. The last digit is not an indication of VR II technology, but rather the revision of the lens.
1) Lens Overview
Nikon’s current line of exotic super telephoto lenses includes three monster lenses – Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, Nikon 500mm f/4G VR and Nikon 600mm f/4G VR. All three were updated at the same time in 2007 to include the latest Nikon technologies such as VR II (Vibration Reduction II), ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and N (Nano Crystal Coat), when Nikon announced its first full-frame DSLR – the Nikon D3. Before 2007, none of these lenses featured vibration reduction / image stabilization and Nikon was clearly lagging behind its main competitor Canon, which had image-stabilized versions of its super telephoto lenses since as far as 1999. It is hard to understand what I mean by the word “monster”, until you get to actually play with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 and compare it against other telephoto lenses. It truly is a massive and a heavy lens, due to its complex optical design (14 lens elements in 11 groups) with large glass to give you that f/2.8 maximum aperture.
Its resolution and acuity performance are legendary, right on par with Nikon’s best of the best – the Nikon 200mm f/2G VR II and Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. Nikon labels the lens as a “Sports and Action” lens for a reason – its super fast autofocus silent wave motor is designed for capturing moving subjects in real time. You will quite often see this lens getting used in national and world sports events such as Olympics, World Cup and Super Bowl, as well as in wildlife hot-spots and concerts around the world. Its large aperture of f/2.8, along with its magical optical design allow isolating subjects with a very shallow depth of field, beautifully rendering the background known as “bokeh“, while retaining maximum sharpness on the subject.
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G fully works with all current Nikon teleconverters and its low-light capabilities are very impressive. The Nikon 1.4x TC-14E II teleconverter increases the focal length of the lens to 560mm while increasing the maximum aperture to f/4.0, the Nikon 1.7x TC-14E II teleconverter increases the focal length to 680mm and maximum aperture to f/4.8, and the Nikon 2.0x TC-20E III doubles the focal length of the lens to 800mm and stops down the lens by two stops at maximum aperture of f/5.6. What this essentially means, is that while you get more total focal length with the teleconverters, you end up losing some light at the same time. The lens performs equally well on both FX and DX sensors, with a 1.5x narrower field of view on DX sensor, which is equivalent to 600mm without a teleconverter. This means that with a 2x teleconverter on a DX camera like the Nikon D7000, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G would have a field of view similar to a 1200mm lens!
The two letters “ED” in the lens name (the lens has 3 total ED elements) stand for “Extra-low Dispersion”, as explained in my Nikon lens naming convention article, which means that the lens delivers superior sharpness and reduced chromatic aberration or “color fringing” in photographs when compared to non-ED lenses. In addition to the Silent Wave Motor (SWM/AF-S) that provides fast and quiet auto focus, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR also features Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coating technologies, which reduce ghosting and flare. When it comes to weather sealing, the Nikon 400mm easily withstands dust, moisture and tough weather conditions – usual environments for sports, nature and wildlife photographers.
2) Lens Specifications
- Super-fast, telephoto lens, optimized for edge-to-edge sharpness on both the Nikon FX- (23.9 x 36mm) and DX-format image sensors.
- New tripod detection mode reduces vibration that may occur due to shutter release when mounted on a tripod.
- Exclusive Nano Crystal Coat and a meniscus protective glass element combine to further reduce ghosting and flare for even greater image clarity.
- Rugged, reliable and lightweight, this lens features a magnesium die-cast barrel and professional-grade dust- and moisture-resistant construction.
- Fully compatible with Nikon TC-14E II, TC-17E II and TC-20E II (III) Teleconverters
- Nikon VR II (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization, engineered specifically for each VR NIKKOR lens, enables handheld shooting at up to 4 shutter speeds slower than would otherwise be possible, assuring dramatically sharper still images and video capture.
- Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) enables ultra-high-speed autofocusing with exceptional accuracy and powerful, super-quiet operation.
- Three Extra-low Dispersion (ED) elements control chromatic aberrations while enhancing color, sharpness and contrast, even at the widest aperture settings.
- New A/M focus mode provides fast, secure switching between auto and manual focus operation.
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length: 400mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
- Minimum Aperture f/22
- Format: FX/35mm
- Maximum Angle of View: (DX-format) 4°
- Maximum Angle of View: (FX-format) 6°10′
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.16x
- Lens Elements: 14
- Lens Groups: 11
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, FX in DX Crop Mode, 35mm Film
- VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- Nano Crystal Coat: Yes
- ED Glass Elements: 3
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 9.5 ft. (2.9m)
- Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Auto/Manual
- G-type: Yes
- Filter Size: 52mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Slip-in
- Dimensions (Approx.): 6.3×14.5 in. (Diameter x Length), 159.5x368mm (Diameter x Length)
- Weight (Approx.): 163 oz. (4,620g)
- Supplied Accessories: Slip-on HK-33 lens hood, CT-404 trunk case, Slip-in filter holder, 52mm screw-in NC filter, LN-1 strap, Monopod collar
3) Lens handling
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is a rugged professional lens designed to withstand physical abuse in all kinds of environments and tough weather conditions. I hauled it along with me on a trip to Yellowstone and then to snowy mountains of Colorado, so it took everything from 100F heat to 20F freezing temperatures without any sort of protection. The lens functioned flawlessly all along, as expected – that’s the type of protection you get on a $9K lens. Weighing a whopping 10 pounds (almost 5 kilos), the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is the second heaviest lens made by Nikon, after the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR, which weighs a pound more. This weight is no joke when combined with a 3 pound Nikon D3s – that’s 13 pounds of total weight! To top this off, the lens is huge. It has a 6.3 inch front diameter, again second biggest of the Nikon superteles. Take a look at the following lens size comparison (from left to right: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S, Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II, Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR, Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, Nikon 500mm f/4G VR):
Now here is the front element of the 400mm compared to 500mm (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, Right: Nikon 500mm f/4G VR):
When you deal with gear with these kinds of dimensions and weight, handling becomes an issue. I am very used to hand-holding the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S lenses, because they are relatively small and not as heavy. I also often shoot the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II and Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR lenses without using a tripod or a monopod. The 300mm f/2.8 is not bad, as long as I can rest my arms every once in a while. The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 is rather heavy and I prefer to keep it on a tripod when possible, although I have shot with it hand-held quite a bit when chasing wildlife. Right after I opened the 400mm case and took the lens out, I mounted it on my D3s and tried a couple of shots hand-held. Ouch, it was painful. I don’t care if you work out every day or have a very strong body build, this lens will make your arms and your back feel the pain very quickly. In addition, your hands and your body will shake and with the focal length of 400mm you might end up with plenty of blurry pictures, if you do not watch your shutter speed. So, how would you handle this lens? Your best choice would be to use a very sturdy tripod + gimbal-type head with an arca-swiss quick-release system that can handle 15-30 pounds of weight. Gitzo’s 6X Systematic CF series with Wimberley WH-200 are ideal for this. Then you would need to replace the standard tripod foot on the 400mm with one from RRS or Kirk. Once you get the lens mounted and balanced on a gimbal head, turning it left/right or up/down is very easy and intuitive. The last thing you want to do is mount a $10K setup on a $100 tripod. While the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is well protected against occasional bumps, it might not survive a drop from a tripod, so keep this mind and invest in a good and stable tripod system. And if you want to really protect your lens against potential scratches, then I would recommend to get a LensCoat Lens Cover for it. I use LensCoat on my Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 VR and it certainly does a very good job at not only protecting the lens, but also in keeping my hands warm when shooting in colder temperatures. If you have a lighter camera body like Nikon D700, I suggest attaching a camera grip for better balance.
When it comes to manual focus operation, the focus ring is smooth and very easy to operate. When you move the focus ring and reach the focus limit, the ring continues rotation with no resistance in either direction. In addition to the normal AF and a number of other switches on the side of the lens, there is a separate VR ring to turn VR on and off. To be honest, I have never been a fan of these types of rings (reminds me of the ring on the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D), since they have a “plastic” feel to them and seem to easily break. I certainly prefer a switch for VR instead, like on the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G and Nikon 200-400mm f/4G lenses. When the Nikon 400mm was mounted on a tripod at my height, I could not easily see what position the VR ring was on. Gladly VR emits a sound when it activates, so if I did not hear it, I would know that it was off. Had there been a switch on the side, I could easily see it without any hassles. Another switch that I use and change on telephoto lenses is focus limiter. You can set it to “Full” or “∞-6m” marks, which stand for focusing from the closest focus distance of 2.9 meters to infinity (Full) and from 6 meters to infinity (∞-6m). By default, mine is always set to the latter, because it saves a lot of time when the lens hunts for focus in challenging situations. When set to “Full”, telephoto lenses take almost twice longer to go from closest focus to infinity, while the focus limit switch restricts ability to focus on objects closer than 6 meters, eliminating the extra rotations that slow down autofocus. If you photograph subjects closer than 6 meters, then you will need to set the switch back to “Full” to allow the lens to focus.
The HK-33 carbon fiber hood comes in two pieces that attach to each other and then onto the lens. To reduce flare and protect the front of the lens, I suggest leaving it on the lens at all times when shooting in the field. The nice $400 CT-404 trunk case the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR comes in is made of highly durable aluminum and it does a great job at protecting the lens during transport. While the case is very nice, I prefer something more lightweight and compact, like the CL-L2 Nylon Case that comes with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.
4) Focus acquisition speed and accuracy
Like all long-range Nikon telephoto lenses, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is equipped with Internal Focus (IF), which drives the AF performance to its limits. The lens snaps into focus instantly and silently, thanks to the Silent Wave Motor. Focusing works very well, even in low-light environments. I used the lens on several Nikon DSLRs like Nikon D3s, Nikon D700 and Nikon D7000 and it focused extremely well on all three. With the Nikon TCs attached, the lens generally acquired focus well, except in low-light situations.
5) Lens sharpness and contrast
When it comes to sharpness and contrast, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 sits together with the legendary Nikon 200mm f/2 and Nikon 300mm f/2.8 lenses, considered to be a sharpness “reference” lens. It took Nikon 25+ years to make it what it is today – a highly regarded work of art and engineering that delivers outstanding images to sports, action and wildlife photographers that need maximum sharpness for print. As shown in the subsequent pages of this review, both center and corner frames are razor sharp at all apertures, which is simply incredible. Contrast is top of the class and colors are stunningly beautiful, definitely Nikon’s best, thanks to the clever optical design of the lens.
Click here to download the full size version of the above image.
6) Bokeh and Vignetting / Light Falloff
One of the strengths of long telephoto lenses is the beautiful, creamy bokeh they are able to produce, due to the shallow depth of field, at even longer distances. The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is a bokeh champion – it produces exceptionally good-looking background blur, especially wide open at maximum aperture of f/2.8. I primarily used the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR for birding and wildlife photography and I was stunned by the results. The bokeh looks creamy and beautiful and the lens does a superb job at isolating subjects at large apertures. Here is an example of subject isolation and bokeh for a bird shot at f/2.8:
When shooting on FX (full-frame), a moderate amount of vignetting is noticeable at maximum aperture, which gets significantly reduced by f/4.0-f/5.6 and completely gone by f/8.0:
Vignetting on DX is not as evident at large apertures and you can only see slightly darker corners at f/2.8; by f/4, all visible vignetting is gone.
Vignetting is not always bad – in fact, some amount of vignetting at f/2.8 actually looks good when shooting wildlife, drawing the attention of the viewer to the subject. If you want to get rid of vignetting completely, a lens correction profile is already available for all super telephoto lenses in Lightroom 3.5.
7) Ghosting and Flare
Notice how big the double hood on this lens is? Well, it is there for a reason – most long-range telephoto lenses do not perform well against the sun, when compared to wide angle lenses. So, if you shoot against the sun, you might get some large, nasty flares and plenty of ghosting, which is quite normal. The integrated “Nano Crystal Coat” certainly helps to reduce ghosting and flare, but does not eliminate it. Here is an image with the sun above the frame:
Note the reduced contrast of the image when shooting against the sun and sun rays making it into the lens. If you include the sun in the frame, you will surely see ghosts and flares, which is again normal for a telephoto lens of this class.
Forget about distortion on the 400mm f/2.8 – it is practically non-existent. If you put up straight lines on the wall and shoot some samples wide open, you might see a very minimal amount of pincushion distortion when shooting at close distances, but as soon as the focus point gets towards infinity or the lens is stopped down a little, distortion is completely eliminated. Distortion is even less noticeable on cropped-sensor cameras. Distortion is generally not a problem, because it can be easily fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom 3 using Lens Correction.
9) Vibration Reduction
As I have already pointed out earlier, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR comes with the latest generation Vibration Reduction II system that Nikon claims allows shooting with up to 4 times slower shutter speeds while retaining sharpness. While Vibration Reduction is a very nice feature on any lens, especially super telephoto, you have to be careful about when to employ VR and how to use it in different situations. If not properly used, VR can actually hurt images and degrade image sharpness. This happens when photographers keep VR turned on all the time no matter what light conditions they are in and shoot away without letting VR stabilize. The purpose of VR technology is to fight against different types of motion like hand motion or platform motion. To counter these motions, the lens detects movements and their direction, then makes internal movements against that motion. Hence, if you see a subject and just press the shutter without half-pressing it and letting the lens stabilize first, you might end up with softer images. Furthermore, it is important to understand that VR was designed to work in situations where the shutter speed drops to the point where lens/camera shake causes blur. It was not designed to be used with ultra fast shutter speeds. If you were to shoot the 400mm f/2.8G VR lens hand-held at 1/1000 of a second without vibration reduction / image stabilization, you would rarely end up with blurry images, unless your subject or its parts move faster than 1/1000 of a second. So when should VR be used on such lenses as 400mm f/2.8? There are only few cases when using VR can help in getting sharper images:
- When shooting hand-held or panning and shutter speed is slow enough to cause camera shake (VR: Normal).
- When shooting through a car window and resting the lens on the window, with a slow shutter speed (VR: Normal).
- When shooting on a monopod with a slow shutter speed (VR: Normal).
- When shooting on a tripod with a very slow shutter speed (VR: Tripod).
If you use the lens on a stable tripod system as explained earlier, you should always have VR turned off, unless you are on a moving platform (such as a boat). If vibrations cause blur on a tripod and your shutter speed is very slow, then switching from “Normal” to “Tripod” mode might help. Read more about VR technology here. Check out this image of the full moon with VR turned on in “Tripod” mode:
Although the image was shot at a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/400 sec, the total focal length was 680mm (400mm x 1.7x TC), equivalent to 1020mm, because I mounted the lens on the Nikon D7000 with a DX / crop sensor that has a 1.5x crop factor. I initially shot with VR off, but then I was getting some camera shake when the mirror moved up before the shot, so I decided to try turning VR on in “Tripod” mode to see if it helps. As you can see from the above shot, it sure did! For subsequent shots, I disabled VR, then enabled exposure delay and used a remote to eliminate camera shake completely. The results were very comparable, so VR surely does work. Remember, when you shoot with long telephoto lenses, even the slightest camera shake can result in blurry images.
10) Performance with the Nikon TC-14E II teleconverter
As I have pointed out above, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR works great with all Nikon teleconverters. The Nikon TC-14E II teleconverter increases the focal length of the lens to 560mm total (400mm x 1.4) and slows down the lens to f/4.0. Aside from the decreased maximum aperture, you will barely notice that the TC-14E II is attached to your lens – it has a very small effect on image quality, sharpness or color. The results with the TC-14E II are fantastic and I would not hesitate to shoot the lens wide open at f/4.0. A detailed sharpness comparison with the TC-14E II can be found on the subsequent pages of this review. Here is a sample image taken with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR with TC-14E II:
11) Performance with the Nikon TC-17E II Teleconverter
The Nikon TC-17E II works surprisingly well with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR in terms of sharpness and contrast, increasing the focal length of the lens to 680mm (400mm x 1.7) and slowing it down to f/4.8. In low-light situations, AF performance takes a hit, but it is not bad and certainly usable. The wide open performance at f/4.8 is a tad soft, so I would stop down to f/5.6 for the best results. Take a look at the following sample image shot with the Nikon TC-17E II:
If you are interested in seeing a detailed sharpness test, see the subsequent pages of this review.
12) Performance with the Nikon TC-20E III Teleconverter
As I have already shown in my Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II Review and TC-20E III Review, the new TC-20E III delivers very good results with fast-aperture telephoto lenses, including the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. I performed a number of outdoor and indoor tests of the TC-20E III mounted on the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 and I can say that for situations where you need the reach, the TC-20E III delivers good results, as long as you have enough light and stop down a little. In low-light and heavy backlight situations AF can start to hunt, so some manual AF prefocus might be needed. For fast-moving subjects, AF is a hit and miss, just like when used with the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. The TC-20E III doubles the focal length of the 400mm lens to 800mm (400mm x 2) and slows it down by two full stops to f/5.6. Wide open the sharpness and contrast are soft, but stopping down to f/8 brings back the sharpness and contrast to very good levels. Overall, the TC-20E III is very usable on the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, just like when used with the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II.
Again, if you want to see some detailed sharpness tests, check out the subsequent pages of this review.
Let’s now move on to the good stuff – Sharpness tests and Comparisons. Select the next page below.
Some technical junk:
- White Balance: Auto; set to 3300, Temp +17 in Lightroom
- ISO: 200
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Lens was mounted on Nikon D3s FX / Nikon D7000 DX Cameras and Gitzo tripod
- Subject distance is about 6 meters
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect + Manual Focus.
- Mirror Lock-Up mode with Exposure Delay set to “On” and remote cable release to completely eliminate camera shake
- Long exposure NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Lightroom settings: Default settings, but exposure had to be slightly adjusted for some images
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- Testing was performed at f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6 and f/8.0 apertures
- Nothing was moved during testing
13) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm Center Frame
Either hover your mouse or click on each image to see the aperture settings. Top left: f/2.8, Top right: f/4.0, Bottom left: f/5.6, Bottom right: f/8.0.
Do you see a difference between any of the above images? Because I don’t – the center sharpness of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR looks very good at all apertures.
14) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm Corner Frame
How about the extreme corners? Let’s take a look:
Aside from some visible vignetting at large apertures, the corners look as good as the center frame, which is simply incredible! No wonder why images from this lens look so crisp and sharp.
15) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm + TC-14E II Center Frame
Let’s take a look at how the lens performs with a TC-14E II. I chose the area a little right off the center to show more details:
At maximum aperture of f/4 there is a very slight amount of softness, which gets significantly better by f/5.6. Optimal sharpness is achieved between f/5.6 and f/8.
16) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm + TC-14E II Corner Frame
And here are the corners:
Again, corners are slightly softer wide open and look the same from f/5.6 onwards.
17) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm + TC-17E II Center Frame
Here is the center frame crop with the TC-17E II attached:
Similar to TC-14E II, the TC-17E II has a slightly softer wide open performance that gets better by f/5.6 and much better by f/8.0. Optimal sharpness is achieved between f/8 and f/11.
18) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm + TC-17E II Corner Frame
And corners with the TC-17E II:
Again, the same story – the wide open performance is slightly softer.
19) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm + TC-20E III Center Frame
And finally, performance with the TC-20E III in the center frame:
The wide open performance is relatively good, but slightly soft. Stopping down the lens to f/8 significantly improves contrast and sharpness details. Optimal sharpness is achieved at f/11.
20) Sharpness Test – Nikon 400mm + TC-20E III Corner Frame
Corners with the TC-20E III:
Corners start visibly soft wide open, get better by f/5.6 and achieve maximum sharpness at f/11.
Now that you have seen how the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR performs with and without teleconverters, let’s see how it compares against other telephoto lenses.
Compared to Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II
Here, I am comparing the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III @ 400mm. I know that it is unfair to do such a comparison, because the 70-200mm can only get to 400mm with a 2x TC-20E III teleconverter that negatively impacts its image quality. This comparison is only here as a reference, for those who wonder about sharpness differences. Please note that the image from the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II looks smaller, because of the “focus breathing” issue, as explained in my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II Review.
21) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR vs Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III
Lets see how both compare wide open (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, Right: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III @ f/5.6):
Nikon 70-200mm @ f/5.6 cannot even come close to 400mm @ f/2.8, as can be clearly seen above. Stopping down the lens to f/8.0 gives slightly better results, but still much worse than that of the 400mm, as expected.
22) Comparison Summary
While the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II works reasonably well with the TC-20E III teleconverter, its sharpness performance on the long end is weak when compared to the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, even when stopped down to f/8 and f/11. This is because the TC-20E III degrades sharpness and contrast on the 70-200mm, while the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is razor sharp at all apertures. Corner performance looks even worse in comparison, so I decided not to include it here.
Let’s take a look at lenses that are more comparable – Nikon 300mm f/4 and f/2.8 lenses.
Compared to Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S
What about my favorite Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S lens? How does it compare to the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR with and without teleconverters? Because of the field of view differences, here are the focal lengths and TC combinations that I will be comparing:
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8 vs Nikon 300mm f/4D + TC-14E II @ 420mm – 20mm difference
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-14 E II @ 560mm vs Nikon 300mm f/4D + TC-20E III @ 600mm – 40mm difference
23) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR vs Nikon 300mm f/4 + TC-14E II
Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR @ f/2.8 400mm, Right: Nikon 300mm f/4D + TC-14E II @ f/5.6 420mm:
The Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S is a very sharp lens, even with a TC-14E II teleconverter, as can be seen from the above image crops. However, it cannot match the wide open performance of the 400mm f/2.8G lens. If both lenses are stopped down to the same aperture, the difference in sharpness is even more noticeable.
24) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II vs Nikon 300mm f/4D + TC-20E III
Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II @ f/4.0 560mm, Right: Nikon 300mm f/4D + TC-20E III @ f/8.0 600mm:
Even if the 300mm crop is magnified more due to focal length difference, the Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S still cannot resolve as much detail as the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR does with a TC-14E II teleconverter. It only gets comparable when stopped down to f/11, which is 3 stops slower:
Corner performance provides very similar results.
25) Comparison Summary
It is difficult to compare the Nikon 300mm f/4 lens against the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 due to focal length differences. The first test shows that the Nikon 300mm f/4 with a TC-14E II at f/5.6 performs worse than the 400mm wide open, that’s with 2 full stops of difference. The second test shows that the Nikon 300mm f/4 with a TC-20E III can only yield comparable results when stopped down to f/11. Now that’s in a lab environment. In real shooting conditions, even in bright light, the Nikon 300mm f/4 does not autofocus with the TC-20E III and becomes a very slow f/8 manual focus lens. So the second test is not really relevant, unless you will be shooting in manual focus only. This leaves only one scenario for the 300mm f/4 – for use with the TC-14E II. I did not bother providing test results with the TC-17E II, because I find it unusable on the Nikon 300mm f/4D, just like the TC-20E II or III.
Compared to Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II
Let’s see how the 400mm compares with the excellent Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. How does it compare to the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR with and without teleconverters? Because of the field of view differences, here are the focal lengths and TC combinations that I will be comparing:
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8 vs Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-14E II @ 420mm – 20mm difference
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-14 E II @ 560mm vs Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III @ 600mm – 40mm difference
26) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR vs Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-14E II
Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR @ f/2.8 400mm, Right: Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-14E II @ f/4.0 420mm:
Similar to the 300mm f/4, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II is less sharp with the TC-14E than 400mm f/2.8G VR wide open. Let’s see what happens when the 300mm f/2.8G VR II is stopped down to f/5.6:
Both are comparable, but the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 seems to be slightly sharper. And let’s stop it down more to f/8:
The situation does not change when the 300mm f/2.8G VR II is stopped down to f/8. This clearly shows that even the excellent TC-14E II still degrades image sharpness a little.
27) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II vs Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III
Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-14 E II @ f/4.0 560mm, Right: Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III @ f/5.6 600mm:
As expected, the sharpness difference here is quite obvious – TC-20E III negatively impacts the sharpness, especially at the largest aperture of f/5.6. Let’s see what happens when we stop down to f/8.0:
With a 2 stop difference, now both are more or less comparable. What if we stop down the 300mm all the way to f/11?
When stopped down to f/11, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III looks sharper than Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II wide open – a difference of 3 full stops. If the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II is stopped down to f/5.6, then both look about the same again.
28) Comparison Summary
When compared to the Nikon 300mm f/4D, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II is a different beast that works well with all three teleconverters. The good news is that autofocus on the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II works with the TC-20E III attached, so the second test is still valid when shooting outdoors. The only caveat to the TC-20E III, is that it requires good light to get accurate focus. In medium and low-light situations, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR with the TC-14E teleconverter will provide better AF accuracy results than the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II with the TC-20E III, so keep this in mind. If you do not mind stopping down by 2-3 stops with slower and less reliable AF, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II is a great alternative that can get you to 600mm.
Compared to Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR
While the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR has been my wildlife lens for the past 5 years, I wanted to see how it compares against the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR in detail, with and without teleconverters. The Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 VR has recently been updated to version II, with no optical changes to the lens design.
The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR is the only lens here that can be fairly compared to the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, due to its 400mm focal length on the long end. While doing my tests at roughly 6 meters, I discovered that the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G is actually a bit shorter in focal length (could be another lens breathing issue), which is roughly equal to 380mm on the Nikon 200-400mm. For comparison purposes, I had to change the focal length of the 200-400mm to roughly 380-385mm to have the same field of view.
29) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR
Compared to the Nikon 400mm f/2.8, The Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 is a versatile lens, offering the ability to zoom from 200mm to 400mm, which is very useful for sports and wildlife photographers. Being able to zoom in and out is useful for large mammals and I know that many photographers that do safari trips to Africa and travel to Alaska to photograph bears love the 200-400 for this particular feature. But what about sharpness, and how does the 400mm compare to the 200-400mm? Let’s see how both lenses compare at 400mm wide open (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8, Right: Nikon 200-400mm f/4 @ f/4):
Both look about the same to me. Let’s see what happens when both lenses are at f/4:
Again, not much difference between the two, with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR having a slight edge over the 200-400mm. Here is f/5.6:
Stopping down these lenses does not seem to help improve the lens performance.
30) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR + TC-14E II
Now let’s see what happens when both lenses have the TC-14E II teleconverter attached. First, let’s see what happens with both wide open (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II @ f/4.0 560mm Right: Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR + TC-14E II @ f/5.6 560mm):
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G + TC-14E II appears sharper than Nikon 200-400mm f/4G + TC-14E II. What if we stop down the 400mm by a full stop to make lens apertures match on both?
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G gets ever crispier! Now both stopped down to f/8.0:
The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR + TC-14E II clearly lags behind the 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II.
31) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-17E II vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR + TC-17E II
Now that we know the 200-400mm f/4 with a 1.4x TC performs worse than the 400mm f/2.8 with a 1.4x TC, let’s see how these guys will do with a 1.7x TC-17E II teleconverter. Here are both lenses at maximum aperture (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-17E II @ f/4.8 680mm, Right: Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR + TC-17E II @ f/6.7 680mm:
At their largest apertures, both look about the same to me. Let’s see what happens when lenses are stopped down to f/8:
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-17E II looks slightly sharper than the 200-400mm f/4G VR + TC-17E II. The Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR only catches up at f/11 (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-17E II @ f/8, Right: Nikon 200-400mm f/4 + TC-17E II @ f/11):
See my notes in the summary below about using TC-17E II on the 200-400mm f/4.
32) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-20E III vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR + TC-20E III
The last test is to see how both lenses optically compare when the new TC-20E III is attached to them. Here are both lenses at their largest apertures (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-20E III @ f/5.6 800mm, Right: Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR + TC-20E III @ f/8.0 800mm):
I would say both look pretty close at their largest apertures. Now let’s see how the lenses perform when stopped down to f/11, which is a sweet spot when using the TC-20E III:
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is slightly sharper and has a little more contrast than the 200-400mm f/4G VR.
33) Comparison Summary
As can be seen from the above crops, the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G is a very sharp lens at 400mm, which closely rivals the 400mm f/2.8G in the center. The same cannot be said about its corner performance, where it slightly lags behind the 400mm f/2.8G, but it is still not bad for an f/4 lens. With the TC-14E II teleconverter, the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 shows weaker performance than the 400mm f/2.8, but it is not a huge difference. One thing the above lab tests do not show, is the AF performance and reliability when coupled with teleconverters. While the AF performance of the TC-14E II is very good with both lenses, the 400mm f/2.8G seems to be slightly more accurate than the 200-400mm f/4. When shooting with the 200-400mm f/4, I first start out without the TC-14E and only add it when I need the reach. With the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G on the other hand, I just did not want to take the TC-14E II off; it worked so well that I did not even notice it on my lens.
The story with the TC-17E II is very different though. Although sharpness comparisons seem to be suggest that the Nikon 200-400mm is as sharp as the 400mm, the field use suggests otherwise. This is because the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 just does not work couple well with the TC-17E II and its AF is all over the place. If you can get the 200-400mm to focus you might get good results, but it is not easy, especially with moving subjects. Using live view to focus the 200-400mm f/4 + TC-17E II is simply not practical on the field. Even in bright conditions, the TC-17E II struggles with acquiring good focus. Nikon states in its documentation that lenses coupled with TCs with smaller aperture than f/5.6 do not autofocus. They do, but not reliably and the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 is a clear example of that.
As for the TC-20E III, forget about using it on the Nikon 200-400mm f/4. At maximum aperture of f/8, AF is pretty much dead. Expect the lens to hunt even when using contrast detect in live view. The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, on the other hand, works as well as the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II does with the TC-20E III. Autofocus is a little tricky, but works fairly well in bright conditions. In low-light situations, the lens might start to miss focus and hunt, so you might need to assist with pre-focusing the lens before pressing the AF-ON button. Keeping the focus limiter switch at 6m also helps, because you won’t have to wait as long when you miss focus. The sweet spot for the TC-20E III is f/11, which is fairly slow, so you might need to increase your camera ISO to keep up with the shutter speed. Talking about the shutter speed, 800mm is a very long focal length. Even slight vibrations can cause camera shake and image blur, so you have to make sure that you have the lens mounted on a very stable tripod system. Turning VR on in “Tripod” mode might also help with vibrations, so try it and see how it works out for you. In addition, at 800mm you have to be careful about heatwaves that might impact the sharpness of your images.
One important fact that I have not mentioned here is the flexibility of the 200-400mm versus 400mm prime. Some photographers argue that the 200-400mm is a very practical and flexible lens compared to primes, because you can zoom from 200 to 400mm and you can make it a 280 to 560mm zoom with the TC-14E II teleconverter, something you cannot do with primes. This is obviously a valid concern for those who shoot wildlife at close distances, like bears in Alaska. But then for most wildlife out there, you need as much reach as you can get. Going back and looking at all the pictures I have taken with the 200-400mm during the last 5 years, I would say that only 3-5% of the images were taken at focal lengths shorter than 400mm. When it comes to photographing wildlife, focal length just never seems to be enough. So the 400mm f/2.8G gives you much more reach when you need it, all the way to 800mm, while the 200-400mm is pretty much capped at 560mm with the 1.4x TC.
Compared to Nikon 500mm f/4G VR
The last test is to see how the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR fares against the Nikon 500mm f/4G VR. Again, there are no truly comparable focal lengths here, so here is what I am comparing:
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-14E II @ 560mm vs Nikon 500mm f/4 @ 500mm – 60mm difference
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-17E II @ 680mm vs Nikon 500mm f/4 + TC-14E II @ 700mm – 20mm difference
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III @ 800mm vs Nikon 500mm f/4 + TC-17E II @ 850mm – 50mm difference
34) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-14E II vs Nikon 500mm f/4G VR
This is an interesting comparison. With the TC-14E II, the Nikon 400mm is also an f/4 lens, but with 60mm more reach. Here are some crops off the center on both lenses at f/4 (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-14E, Right: Nikon 500mm f/4):
The Nikon 500mm f/4G VR is a very sharp lens, as can be clearly seen from the image crop above. At f/4, it has more contrast and sharpness than the 400mm f/2.8G with a 1.4x TC. Let’s see if anything changes at f/5.6:
Things start evening out at f/5.6, but the Nikon 500mm f/4 is still sharper. Here is f/8:
Nothing changes at f/8. These lenses are both very sharp starting from f/5.6, so the 500mm f/4 only has an advantage when shot wide open, plus there is a difference of 50mm in focal length.
35) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-17E II vs Nikon 500mm f/4G VR + TC-14E II
Although there is only a 20mm of difference in focal length in this test (680mm vs 700mm), the actual difference is more like 40-50mm. This is very similar to the issue I had when testing the 400mm against the 200-400mm – the 400mm was actually shorter, more like 380mm. It is probably related to the fact that my test target was fairly close (6m) and the lens probably has a focus breathing issue at close distances. That’s why there is a bigger field of view difference here. Let’s take a look at both lenses wide open:
The Nikon 500mm f/4 + TC-14E is sharper than the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G + TC-17E at the maximum aperture of f/5.6 and f/4.8. Let’s see what happens with both lenses at f/5.6 (400mm f/2.8 stopped down to f/5.6):
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8 quickly catches up with sharpness. Here is f/8 performance:
Both lenses look about the same at f/8 and the same is true for f/11.
36) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR + TC-20E III vs Nikon 500mm f/4G VR + TC-17E II
The last test is to see how the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 with the TC-20E III fares against the Nikon 500mm f/4 with the TC-17E II. Now before I show you the results, I would like to point out that the Nikon 500mm f/4 does not couple well with the TC-17E II, similar to the 200-400mm f/4. It is not as bad as the 200-400mm, but AF is still very unreliable. If you can get the 500mm to focus accurately, then the sharpness results are impressive. Let’s take a look at the crops at maximum aperture (Left: Nikon 400mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III @ 800mm, Right: Nikon 500mm f/4 + TC-17E II @ 850mm):
As expected, the wide open performance of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR with the TC-20E III is rather weak when compared to the Nikon 500mm f/4 with the TC-17E II. The 500mm is sharper and has better contrast. Both stopped down to f/8:
Now the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 catches up and both have about the same sharpness and clarity. Finally f/11:
Again, both lenses look pretty good at f/11, with the 500mm f/4 having a little more contrast.
37) Comparison Summary
Without a doubt, the Nikon 500mm f/4 VR is a very sharp lens. Its performance without teleconverters is top notch and it works very well with the TC-14E II, as I have shown in the above tests. At focal lengths below 700mm, the Nikon 500mm f/4 is a little better wide open, but the difference diminishes very quickly when both lenses are compared at same apertures, with the 400mm stopped down a little. Beyond 700mm, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is the winner for one main reason – the Nikon 500mm f/4G VR does not work well with either the TC-17E II or the TC-20E III, while the 400mm f/2.8G does. I tried to use the TC-17E II with the 500mm f/4G VR on a bright day photographing birds and came home with soft images, mostly due to bad focus. I am not even going to mention the TC-20E III performance with the Nikon 500mm f/4, because it simply does not work. Forget about autofocus at f/8.
So if you need the reach with working autofocus, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is the answer. However, there is one big dilemma when comparing these lenses – the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G is bigger and heavier than the Nikon 500mm f/4 – it weighs 740 grams more, which is around 1 pound and 10 ounces, close to how much the Nikon D7000 weighs. If you are trying to decide which one to get, you need to factor in the weight difference. The good thing about the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR with TC combinations, is that it gives you a choice to go shorter at 400mm, or longer (560mm, 680mm or 800mm) when you need to get closer to the action. The Nikon 500mm f/4, on the other hand, only gives you two options – 500mm and 700mm.
Summary and Image Samples
Summary and Image Samples
Without a doubt, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is a superb piece of engineering art. While it does have its own inconveniences like heavy weight and bulky construction, it sits in the same class of top Nikon lenses like the Nikon 200mm f/2G VR II and the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II, with an exceptional optical design that yields sharp images, beautiful bokeh and colors. Its performance from large to small apertures is outstanding – the lens is designed to be used at largest apertures between f/2.8 and f/5.6. As I have shown in my sharpness tests and explained in comparison pages, it works very well with the Nikon TC-14E II and TC-17E II teleconverters, providing great results even at largest apertures. Its low light AF capabilities are certainly affected with teleconverters, especially with the TC-17E II and TC-20E III, but once you get used to working with teleconverters, you will know how to use them to get the best results. The Nikon TC-20E III negatively impacts both sharpness and contrast at large apertures, but stopping down between f/8 and f/11 yields surprisingly good images. I would say that the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR behaves very similarly as the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II with teleconverters.
Now for those who are trying to decide which one of the super telephoto lenses to buy, there are too many choices: Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II, Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR II, Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, Nikon 500mm f/4G VR and Nikon 600mm f/4G VR. When talking about the reach, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II and Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR II are out of the mix, because they are shorter in comparison (600mm and 560mm max with usable AF). So the choice is then between the Nikon 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses. Which one should you get? As I have shown in this review, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR is a better choice than the Nikon 500mm f/4G VR, because it gives you more options and better reach (800mm with usable AF). What about the heaviest and the bulkiest of the bunch, the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR? Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to test the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR, because I was not able to obtain it on time for my review. One thing I know for sure though – the Nikon 600mm f/4 is as sharp as the Nikon 500mm f/4 and has very similar performance characteristics. This means that its performance with the Nikon TC-14E II is very good and you can get excellent sharpness with perfectly working AF at 840mm. None of the other Nikon super telephotos can do that. Hence, if you need to get close to your subjects, the Nikon 600mm f/4 is the obvious choice. However, the weight, bulk and price are again the issue here – the Nikon 600mm f/4 weighs 5 kilos! At the end of the day, no matter which one of these lenses you get, you will have to invest in a good and stable tripod system. Out of the three heavy super telephotos, the Nikon 500mm f/4 is the only lens that I could hand-hold when photographing little birds. My arm hurt like hell later, but if you have enough muscle and a strong back, you could do it for a short period of time. If you find yourself chasing after little birds on your feet, you might want to look into the 500mm instead. If you cannot do that, then the 600mm and 400mm are the top choices (in that order).
Overall, I am very impressed with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, most notably with its performance with the Nikon 1.4x, 1.7x and 2.0x teleconverters. During the time of testing, I shot primarily with teleconverters and I really liked the fact that the lens focused fast and accurately on my subjects.
39) Where to buy and availability
40) More image samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.