The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 is specialized lens that solves a specific problem – when a photographer is faced with the need for both reach, relative speed and compositional flexibility. It gives you the reach of 400mm with the flexibility (albeit however limited) of a 2x zoom down to 200mm – right where the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 leaves off.
More to the point, the 200-400mm f/4 offers superior speed and optics over pairing a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR with a teleconverter.
Here’s my review of the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR II from BorrowLenses.com.
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The design of the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 is well-proportioned, but in no way compact. Even with a more modest maximum aperture of f/4, the lens is extremely long compared to even your average f/2.8 professional zoom. That said, the 200-400mm f/4 packs in very useful 2x zoom range into a body that's at the very limit of what's possible to hand-hold for most photographers.
For me, the overall balance struck between range and size/weight is one thing that makes the 200-400mm so appealing. While the best image quality is delivered using a tripod, and failing that a monopod, it's still possible to hand-hold the 200-400mm f/4 for short period of time, which is a huge asset when working in conditions when even a monopod isn't a viable option.
The design of the 200-400mmm is relatively slim compared to other super telephoto lenses, particularly of the f/2.8 variety, but it's still pretty massive compared to a more pedestrian optic like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, and much longer. The two lenses actually share very similar proportions and the same slightly tapering design, just at very different scales.
Nikon HK-30 Lens Hood
Like most other super-telephoto lenses, the 200-400mm f/4 ships with a stout carbon fiber lens hood, which attaches to the front of the lens via a screw-down knob. This locks the hood into a groove at the front of the lens, which is in turn stable enough to stand the lens on the hood quite stably if needed.
Mounting the HK-30 lens hood makes for a relatively huge outfit, but the narrow field of view with this lens allows for a very effective shield against stray light. When using this lens, I've never had instances of flare occur, in part thanks to the great optics, but also due to the effectiveness of this carbon fiber sheath.
Controls & Interface
The 200-400mm f/4 VR II features just a few more controls on its side than your average lens, but for all intents the controls are standard for Nikon's super telephoto lenses.
Like most new Nikkor lenses, the 200-400mm features an focus switch for setting your AF/MF priority for setting the hierarchy of autofocus and manual focus.
Down from there, the lens features a focus limiter, which allows you to set a distance range you’d like to the lens to use – either the full range, or limited past 6-meters to infinity. In addition, one can set the VR mode between normal and tripod use.
As the lens also features AF memory buttons, the recall choices between AF-L and AF-ON are also available.
It might seem strange to comment on the general usability of a lens – these things are tools, after all. But there's the rub. If they're difficult to use for any given application, it doesn't matter how well a tool may perform.
The point of usability for the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 is that it's just barely hand-holdable for select applications – and particularly when there's enough light to use high shutter speeds.
Due to the size of the lens, handholding is never the ideal option, but it the freedom from a tripod or even a monopod is certainly a necessary evil at times as a music photographer. So, it's the fact that the 200-400mm can be held at all is a point in its favor against faster, larger lenses.
Optics & Image Quality
Needless to say, the optics of this lens are very, very good. While some users have made small whimpering noises about the performance of this lens at infinity when used at wide apertures, I've found this lens delivers excellent quality for all practical distances when shooting live music.
I think it's safe to say that the determining factor for image quality with most shooters will almost always be technique, rather than the optics of the 200-400mm f/4 VRII.
Moreover, this lens delivers what other lenses cannot. A unique combination of zooming flexibility, reach and relative speed that not even a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II with a teleconverter can touch.
For anyone who needs this combination of talents, rest assured – the 200-400mm f/4 VR II delivers in spades.
When you need both flexibility of a zoom and the reach of a true super telephoto, the 200-400mm f/4 is pretty much the only game in town.
This unique zoom's delivery of reach, zooming flexibility and a relatively fast f/4 aperture combine into a vital package for anyone who needs all three requirements. While one gives up the f/2.8 speed of Nikon's super telephoto primes, the 200-400mm f/4 delivers excellent quality at speeds and quality a notch above a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR paired with a teleconverter. While the 200-400mm f/4 VR II is ultimately a compromise, it's a beautiful one.
I've rented the 200-400mm on multiple occasions when I need more reach than my 70-200mm can provide, and it always delivers.
Get This Lens
If you can afford to buy this lens – by all means, go through the fine folks at B&H Photo Video and tell them I sent you.
For everyone else, I recommend BorrowLenses.com for the Nikon 200-400mmm f/4 VR II, Nikon 400m f/4 VR II, and all the other ridiculous and exotic super telephotos we can't afford.