The Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G VR is a very versatile and sharp lens and those that own it or previously used it know that is a great choice for close action photography, such as photographing bears in Alaska. I recently saw a comment by a photographer, who claimed that the lens gets even sharper if its front protective filter is removed. Both the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G VR and its newer VR II version have a removable front protective element, as well as a 52mm drop-in filter that most other super telephoto lenses have. While I was testing my 200-400mm f/4G VR in my Imatest lab, I decided to compare the performance of the lens with and without the front protective and the 52mm drop-in filter to see if the above claims were true or not. It turned out to be an interesting study. I apologize for the geeky nature of this article!
I measured the performance of the lens for this study at 200mm, so let’s take a look at how the lens performs with and without the filters:
The results on the left represent the performance of the lens with both the protective and the 52mm drop-in filters in place. Look at what happened when I removed the front protective filter in the second result set “No Front” – the image became blurry and I could actually even see this blur on the camera Live View. Looks like the front element actually does affect the way light rays bend inside the lens: removing the front filter actually slightly changes the focal plane. After I re-acquired focus again without the filter in place, the image sharpness went back to normal, as seen from the third result set “No Front RF (Re-Focus)”. If we compare the first and the third result sets, that’s basically what happens in reality with and without the front protective filter. Although there is a very slight difference in numbers, those are within the error threshold. And even if they weren’t, you would never be able to tell the two apart with your eyes!
The fourth result set was an interesting one. Without changing anything, I simply removed the 52mm drop in filter. To my surprise, I could immediately see the Live View image turn from sharp to complete blur, as seen from the crop below:
Whoa! Now that’s interesting. It turns out that the 52mm drop-in filter severely moves the focal plane. So it is not just sitting there for nothing!
The last test was to see if I could obtain proper focus without the filter. The fifth result set called “No Drop-in RF (Re-Focus)” shows that I could. And if you compare the result with the first and the third result sets, it is actually pretty similar again.
The above study shows us that one should not be removing protective and drop-in filters from super telephoto lenses like the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G, as they are clearly there for a reason. While removing the front filter does not do much aside from exposing the fragile and expensive front element, removing the drop-in filter drastically moves the focal plane, which might result in all kinds of focus problems and inconsistencies. The photographer who indicated that his lens was sharper without a filter most likely had focusing issues, or his testing methodology had some flaws.
I am heading out to the mountains for our fall workshops tomorrow, but once I come back, I am planning to finally review the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G VR, along with a few other cameras and lenses. I apologize for the wait!
Just bought a 200 4000. Most useful article. Thanks.
planning to purchase nikon 200-400mm, almost all of my shots are birds and bit worried about the performance at longer distances.
does anyone have experience of shooting this lens with the new D500
all your comments are highly appreciated
Have a look at the 300mm f4 PF – unreal sharp and tiny. I love mine. I can read the time on the watches of the surfers I shoot.
I have the 200-400f4 vr1 and 300f2.8 vr2. I think one must understand that the 200-400 is a special lens given the zoom and the fact that it produce great IQ throughout the range with fast AF. But was not build to perform with TC’s. Optimum use is within its range and for close to medium range. The 300 f2.8 is like the other primes. Very sharp like all primes, fast focus, and especially the 300 and 400 f2.8 perform very well with TC’s. I use my 2 lenses on different bodies. The 200-400 on a D3s or Df as I frame with the Zoom and seldome crop. In Africa for game and big birds it is magic. My 300f2.8 is used with a TC 1.7 (500mm f4.8) or TC2.0 (600mm f5.6) or naked. I shoot it with my D810 and often in 1.2 crop mode to gain speed and “reach” . Only the 400f2.8 beats the 300 for IQ. Ideally I would trade the 300 for a 400 and use the TC 1.4 for (560 f4). The prime is a specialist, optimum IQ and fast.
I know the 200-400f4 is not everyone’s lens as people read a lot of stuff on the internet and then jump on it as gospel. Well, I have the 300 f2.8 vr2 and the 200-400f4 vr1. I use the 300 f2.8 with all 3 TC’s and have mixed results with the 1.7 and 2.0iii. Most of the inconsistency comes from sloppy photography on my D800 and D810. I often compare the results of the 300 with the 200-400. I find myself using the 300 less and less. Main reason is flexibility of the zoom and the IQ is very good. Yes the 300 beats it hands down at 300, at 400 vs 420 f4 with the TC 1.4 they are very close. This notion that the 200-400 is “weak” over distance is also not 100% correct. I have stunning images shot with this lens over long distance in the early morning or late afternoon. The heat plays havoc even with the 600 and 800 lenses. The key issue is that each piece of photographic equipment fill’s a specific need in the market and non will do all. in good light I use the 200-400f4 with the D7200 and the results are fantastic. I sold my 400f2.8 D lens a few yrs back due to the fact that it was very clumsy using in a safari vehicle. I missed more shots trying to get the thing moved correctly and bought the 300 f2.8. I would love to test the thew 200-500f5.6 as a potential second lens with the 300f2.8.
Is that 52mm drop-in filter you removed in test a “NC filter”?
If it’s a NC flter, should we remove it in normal use to increase brightness?
Why telephoto lens always has a NC filter in accessories? What’s the reason?
How does both filters look like when viewed thru the naked eyes? Are they somewhat planar, converging or diverging since they appear to be essential in the final optical formula?
Thanks for the interesting test Nasim. I always wanted to know what the effects would be with the filters removed.
On my 500 VR it is possible to put the drop-in filter either way around. The manual and even the illustrations give no clear guideline which side of the filter holder is the front and which the rear. Does it make any difference?
reason for asking is that my 500VR has slight front-focus issues. when used alone on my D800 I get best results with a +6 AF correction but when used with TC1.4E II then even the max +20 AF correction is not enough. I am wondering if the position of the filter holder has an influence?
….the question for me is whether it is sharp at DISTANCE and at 400mm and if so at what aperture?
Some experts say it is not and for that reason I would not buy it as I am not a ‘birder”
Nasim could you comment please as your resolution tests are of course close range tests aren’t they?
OK I know what you mean about tests – you have to be careful because many tests and reviews are so poorly designed that the results have no validity.
I was just surprised that Heliopan was not up there with the best as it is well thought of and used by many pros.
I will still do the experiment though!
I have given this some thought….
Would Nikon make a top of the range professional super telephoto lens and then skimp by putting a below par drop in filter in the optical path?
It seems unlikely but it’s still possible that another manufacturer’s offering might be better – and make a difference.
Now here’s the worrying part.
Looking at some pretty authoritative testing at lenstips.com and others, the filters which came out tops were all of Hoya’s offerings especially the Pro Digital, with B&W close behind. Heliopan, although very expensive, came well down the ranking and were described as having “very mediocre optical features (flatness, flare and transmission) and a very high price”. Even B&W were criticised a bit but only as regards not having quite sufficient UV blocking power – which can be discounted as it’s a bit irrelevant with digital cameras. Hoya were clearly best on all measured parameters, which came as a surprise to everyone including the testers.What do we make of that then?
Alarmingly, some well known brands not only did not block UV, but had very poor light, transmission, were not optically flat, had poor homogeneity and were actually described as being out performed by standard window glass! There is a message in there I think.
By coincidence I have always used B&W filters (not for protection) based on their reputation and this seems to borne out in testing.
So, are Heliopan overrated?
Are the differences you are seeing real?
I will try your suggestion with a clear B&W filter and see if I can see an improvement.
Hmmm, I have a funny feeling I am about to spend some money on a dubious exercise!
Those are some interesting facts you found. I really don’t know what to say except that I bought my Heliopan several years ago and who knows, maybe the
quality now is not the same? I only know that replacing my nikon filter with the Heliopan from that time period made a significant “positive” change, the
kind I like. Also, I might add, you should check as many testing sources as you can, because one just isn’t enough, as I have done so before while
researching filter qualities and found big differences in the results of different sources. B/W will probably work just the same, just be sure that it’s their best quality and has the slim ring mount. Hoya, don’t really know, years ago they were ok, but not as good as they say they are now.
Anyway, all I know for myself is that the Heliopan I replaced my nikon filter with allowed much better sharpness, especially wide-open. Let me know what you find and BE SURE that you test under ideal atmosphere conditions, if not, you will not see a difference no matter what filter you use.