Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0G VR
Many photographers who are interested in buying a telephoto lens wonder how the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II compares to the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0G VR lens. Luckily, I have the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 lens and I was able to perform some tests with it.
I have been shooting with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 VR lens for several years now and I have been quite happy with it – it takes very sharp images wide open and performs exceptionally well throughout the zoom range. While the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 VR has recently been updated to the VR II version with no change in optics, VR is not the problem with the 200-400mm. The biggest issue for me is its weight and size. When you grab the 200-400mm on one hand and the 300mm lens on another, you immediately notice the difference in weight which is around 1 pound or ~400 grams. Those 400 grams do make a difference when hand-holding the lens. I typically hand-hold my 200-400mm and after a short while, my left hand starts to get sore. Because of this, I typically shoot in “bursts” of 5-10 seconds and then I have to rest. With the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II, I was able to hand-hold the lens for longer periods of time and it was very apparent when I did some birding in local parks.
Now in terms of size, the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0G is about 25% longer than the 300mm f/2.8G, which does present a few problems. First of all, not many camera bags can fit the 200-400mm with its hood in reverse position, while the 300mm fits in many types of bags. When I travel, I have to take the CL-L2 case with the lens and it is painful to get it in and out of the bag. Gladly, the bottom material can be removed from the CL-L2 and even the D3s fits together with the lens, however, it is still another bag to lurk around with. There are some bags that fit both the 200-400mm and a camera, but they are rather large and expensive. For hand-holding, as I have stated earlier, I do prefer the larger hand-holding area of the 200-400mm – if only the Nikon 300mm had a shorter focus ring that is closer to the end of the barrel!
Compared to the Nikon 300mm 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 300mm with teleconverters compare to the 200-400mm? Let’s take a look.
Sharpness Test – Nikon 300mm f/2.8 vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0
Let’s see how both lenses perform at 300mm @ f/4.0 (Left: 300mm, Right: 200-400mm):
I did not want to move around or change zoom on the 200-400mm, so there is a slight difference in the field of view due to differences in lengths of both lenses. As you can see, both lenses perform exceptionally well in the center and there are no major differences in sharpness. The same goes for f/5.6 and f/8.0 apertures.
What about the corners? Let’s see extreme corners at the same aperture of f/4.0:
The Nikon 300mm certainly performs better than the 200-400mm in the extreme corners – it is noticeably sharper.
But shooting both lenses at 300mm is not very useful – photographers are mostly interested in finding out how images from the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G with various teleconverters perform against the Nikon 200-400mm. Let’s take a look at some examples with teleconverters.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-14E II vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0
Let’s see how the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-14E II (1.4x – 420mm total) compares against the Nikon 200-400m at 400mm:
The Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 wins at f/4.0, which is expected, since we are comparing a lens with a teleconverter to another without one. The TC-14E II is superb, but it is another piece of glass in front of the camera, which certainly does impact the overall sharpness and acuity of the combo.
Here is a comparison at f/5.6:
Stopped down to f/5.6, the sharpness on the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 improves and gets very comparable to the 200-400mm.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-17E II vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 + TC-14E II
Now here is an interesting comparison – if we take the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 and add the TC-17E II, we end up at 510mm. If we take the 200-400mm and add the TC-14E II, we get to 560mm. This time, I tried to match the field of view, because 50mm was too big of a difference. Let’s see how both compare at 510mm (Left: 300mm, Right: 200-400mm):
The Nikon 300mm f/2.8 with TC-17E II at 510mm performs almost equally well as the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 with TC-14E II. The 300mm image is a tad softer, but perfectly acceptable. Don’t forget that the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 with the TC-17E II is at maximum aperture of f/4.8, while the Nikon 200-400mm is at f/5.6, so the 300mm is slightly stopped down. Here is how f/4.8 compares against f/5.6 on the 300mm + TC-17E II:
As you can see, there is almost no difference between f/4.8 and f/5.6 on the 300mm, so I can conclude that there is a half stop advantage on the 300mm when shooting with the TC-17E II.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 + TC-17E II
Now here is another interesting comparison – how does the 300mm with the TC-20E III compare with the Nikon 200-400mm with the TC-17E II? Again, I had to match the field of view on both to get comparable results (Left: 300mm f/5.6, Right: 200-400 f/6.7):
When shooting test charts, both look very similar, with a slight edge on the Nikon 200-400mm. However, results in the field are quite different – the Nikon 200-400mm with TC-17E II does not autofocus as well as the 300mm with TC-20E III and as a result, the number of keepers on the 300mm is much higher. Furthermore, stopping down the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III to f/8.0 and higher yields sharper results than the 200-400mm + TC-17E II at the same apertures. Take a look at these two image samples at f/11:
As you can see, the image from the 300mm at 600mm is sharper.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 + TC-20E III
What about Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 with the TC-20E III? Forget about it – autofocus on the 200-400mm does not work, period. I couldn’t even get D3s to acquire focus through liveview contrast detect with the TC-20E III and it took me several tries to get good focus:
As can be seen from the above images, the Nikon 200-400mm performs poorly with the TC-20E III, in addition to not being able to autofocus with it.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4 Comparison Summary
So, which is a better lens to buy – the Nikon 300mm with 1.4x, 1.7x and 2.0x teleconverters, or the Nikon 200-400mm with 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters? If you need the reach, go for the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. Why? Because with the TC-20E III, you will reliably get to 600mm, while the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 VR will give you 560mm with the TC-14E II. Autofocus with the TC-17E II on the Nikon 200-400mm is very unreliable and unless you are OK with manual focus, I would not count on the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 + TC-17E II combo. Forget about using the TC-20E II on the Nikon 200-400mm – it will not autofocus.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S
What about my favorite Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S lens? How does it compare to the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II with and without teleconverters? Let’s compare both at 300mm f/4.0 (Left: Nikon 300mm f/2.8, Right: Nikon 300mm f/4.0):
I love the Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S for a reason – it is almost as good as the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 at f/4.0! How about the corners?
The corners are looking equally good, which is very impressive for Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S. So, the only difference here is the one stop advantage on the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G + TC-14E II vs Nikon 300mm f/4D + TC-14E
How does the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S + TC-14E compare against the 300mm f/2.8G + TC-14E?
The results, again, are almost identical. The Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S performs exceptionally well with the TC-14E II and the only advantage of the 300mm f/2.8G VR II is one stop, i.e. maximum aperture of f/4.0 vs f/5.6. No need to show the corner performance with the TC-14E II, because it looks the same.
What about TC-17E II and TC-20E III on the Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S? The situation is very similar as with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 lens – the TC-17E II yields unreliable results, while with the TC-20E III, the lens does not autofocus.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S Comparison Summary
As can be seen from the above image samples, the Nikon 300m f/4 AF-S is a superb lens and is almost on par with the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II performance when it comes to sharpness. The Nikon 300mm f/2.8G still yields better colors and bokeh though, because it has superior optics and shallower depth of field. When it comes to teleconverters, the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S marries the TC-14E II pretty well, but that’s about it. TC-17E II yields poor and soft results due to slow and unreliable autofocus and with the TC-20E III, the lens does not focus at all. The biggest advantage of the 300mm f/2.8 lens is obviously VR – it is extremely tough to make sharp images with the 300mm f/4.0 AF-S when the shutter speed is slower than 1/250th of a second, due to lack of VR system.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G vs Nikon 70-200mm + TC-17E II
The next test is comparing the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II with the excellent Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II with TC-17E II and TC-20E III.
Left: Nikon 300mm f/2.8 @ f/5.6, Right: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 + TC-17E II @ f/5.6.
As expected, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G rips the 70-200mm f/2.8G + TC-17E II apart at 300mm f/5.6. In addition, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G is also showing signs of purple fringing.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G + TC-14E II vs Nikon 70-200mm + TC-20E III
What if we compare 70-200mm + TC-20E III with the Nikon 300mm + TC-14E II? Let’s take a look (Left: 300mm, Right: 70-200mm):
Obviously, the field of view is different due to 400mm vs 420mm math, but again, as expected, the Nikon 300mm with TC-14E II beats the Nikon 70-200mm with TC-20E III. I must confess, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G + TC-20E III looks really good though. When the 70-200mm is stopped down to f/8.0+, the purple fringing goes away and the image gets sharper. But more on that later – I will post my findings in my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II Review later.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G vs Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II Comparison Summary
Many of our readers ask if it is better to get the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II with the TC-20E III teleconverter, or get Nikon 300mm f/2.8G / f/4.0 AF-S lens. As can be seen from the above image samples, sharpness-wise, both Nikon 300mm lenses are better than the 70-200mm with a teleconverter. Just like I keep saying, if you need the reach, go for the 300mm lenses – they are always sharper with or without the teleconverters.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Sigma 150-500mm f/3.5-6.3
I borrowed the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens from a good friend of mine and performed some additional tests, comparing it to the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II at various focal lengths.
Let’s see how the Sigma 150-500mm stands up against the Nikon 300mm at 300mm (Left: Nikon 300mm, Right: Sigma 150-500mm):
And here is the extreme corner with the same settings @ 300mm:
Although the Sigma looks surprisingly good at 300mm (especially in the corners), as you can see, it is nowhere close to the 300mm in terms of sharpness. The 300mm focal length seems to be a “sweet spot”, at least when compared to the horrid 500mm performance:
The corners at 500mm look even softer, with plenty of color fringing all over the place.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Sigma 150-500mm f/3.5-6.3 Comparison Summary
To be honest, I am not a big fan of telephoto Sigma lenses. They are definitely of good value, but their QA problems, inconsistent autofocus and often poor performance sets them apart from Nikon telephoto lenses. Just take a look at the horrible image of the 150-500mm at 500mm. I don’t know if I have a bad lens sample, but I certainly find this kind of performance unacceptable. I’m pretty sure Nikon would rather cut the lens to a shorter focal length, then release a lens that yields soft images.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR
The last test is to see how the Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6G VR performs against the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II at 300mm. Let’s take a look at the center frame at f/5.6 (Left: 300mm, Right: 70-300mm):
The Nikon 70-300mm yields very comparable results to the Sigma 150-500mm, but is no match to the 300mm f/2.8G in terms of sharpness in the center. What about the corners?
Similar story here, except the 70-300mm is showing some nasty yellow/blue color fringing. These problems are reduced when the lens is stopped down to f/8.0, but sharpness-wise, the Nikon 70-300mm barely catches up with the Nikon 300mm at f/2.8 (Left: Nikon 300mm @ f/2.8, Right: Nikon 70-300mm @ f/8.0):
So, if you were to shoot the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II wide open at f/2.8, it would yield sharper results than the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR at f/8.0!
Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II vs Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR Comparison Summary
The Nikon 70-300mm is overall a good lens, but no match to the superb performance of the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G, even when stopped down. In addition, as I have pointed out in my Nikon 70-300mm Review, the 70-300mm has problems focusing in low-light situations and does not work as well as the Nikon 300mm for shooting moving subjects such as birds. It is unfair to compare the 70-300mm with the 300mm f/2.8 due to such a large difference in price, but I still wanted to compare both anyway, for those who are interested.
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