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A Review of the Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm f/4G ED VRII

As an adventure photographer I prefer to work with equipment that is lightweight and won’t weigh me down but to get the shot sometimes you have to use a big lens. It wasn’t until I starting shooting surfing a few years ago that I even considered buying a big telephoto lens – and by big I mean a 500mm f/4 or a 600mm f/4 telephoto lens.  If you have ever used one of these lenses then you know they are monsters to cart around. After renting both the 500mm f/4 and the 600mm f/4 to shoot surfing I tried out the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 VR lens thinking that it might offer more versatility than it’s larger cousins. And, well, that thinking turned out to be correct. I fell in love with this lens the very first day I used it.

The Nikkor AF-S 200-400 f/4G ED  VRII is quite a bit lighter than the 500mm f/4 or the 600mm f/4 Nikon options and by attaching a 1.4X teleconverter I can get the same focal lengths as those larger lenses, with no loss in autofocus speed or image quality that I can tell. Weighing in at 7.4 pounds this is by no means a small or light lens. But in comparison to the aforementioned beasts of burden which weigh between two and four pounds more respectively, the 200-400mm is a lot easier to deal with. For one, you don’t need quite as big a tripod to support this lens   (which adds up to even more weight savings) and if you are so inclined it isn’t that difficult to hand hold this lens, albeit for brief periods. Secondly, it offers a tremendously versatile array of focal lengths. On my full frame Nikon D700 the 200-400mm focal lengths are great for shooting big wave surfing in Hawaii or whitewater kayaking and mountain biking just about anywhere. If I need more reach I can attach the 1.4X teleconverter and that will make this combo a 280-560mm f/5.6. Alternatively, with my D300s, which has a sensor with a 1.5X crop factor, the lens is natively a 300-600mm f/4 zoom. And finally if I really need even longer focal lengths I can add the 1.4X teleconverter to the D300s and this lens becomes a 420-840mm f/5.6 zoom. Stop and think about that for a second. With one lens and a teleconverter I can cover a focal length range from 200mm all the way up to 840mm all with a maximum f-stop of f/4 or f/5.6. That is in a nutshell one of the biggest reasons I chose this lens. Oh, that and the fact that this lens is wicked sharp.

A surfer riding a tube at Bonzai Pipeline, on the north shore of Oahu. This image was shot at 1/25th sec. at f/4.0 at ISO 200 with a Nikon D700.

On the topic of sharpness: Having used the 500mm f/4 and the 600mm f/4 I would say that the 200-400mm f/4 is in the same league as those lenses in terms of sharpness. As I haven’t done any scientific comparisons (they can be found online) I can’t say definitively if this is the case or not but the images I have produced with this lens are certainly not lacking in sharpness and they match or exceed the sharpness of my AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII, which is a crazy sharp lens.

The 200-400 VRII is also a beautifully made lens. The barrel of the lens is all metal as one would assume with any lens in this category. The lens hood is made of Carbon Fiber and easily and securely attaches to the front of the lens. The zoom ring is silky smooth as you rotate from 200 to 400mm and it has a nice amount of resistance so that it stays wherever you set it. On the front of the lens are three autofocus lock buttons if you need to lock the focus quickly. The lens is also very well sealed from moisture and dust and has a rubber O-ring that blocks water and dust from working it’s way into the lens mount when mounted to a camera. And since the front end of this lens is too large for filters there is a 39mm drop-in filter bay for polarizers or any other filters you might need to use. And last but not least, this lens also incorporates Nikon’s latest Vibration Reduction (VR II) technology, which allows you to shoot at approximately four-stops slower shutter speeds than normal and still get a sharp images. The top image on the previous page is a good example of an image shot with VR technology. For that image I panned with the subject using a slow shutter speed.

There are no flaws in this lens design that I have discovered. It is about as perfect a lens as can be made by human beings. With a $7,000 price tag that level of build quality is to be expected. It comes with a heavily padded soft-shell case, which has a rigid bottom. The case is so well made that I have carried the lens in the padded pouch to several locations. The only thing I added to the lens was a Really Right Stuff replacement foot (LCF-14) that allows me to mount the lens on an Arca-Swiss type ball head.

Above is the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VRII mounted on my D300s, which has the MB-D10 battery grip attached to it allowing for an eight frames per second (fps) framing rate. With this set up the lens acts as a 300-600mm f/4 telephoto zoom. This is possibly the most perfect set up ever invented for shooting surfing from the beach. Also, notice that it is mounted to my Kirk BH-1 ball head, which can easily handle the weight but as discussed in the review I now prefer to use a Wimberley Head with this lens because it is much better balanced and easier to maneuver the lens while shooting.

I use this lens with one of two tripod heads: a Kirk BH-1 ball head or a Wimberley Head (Version II). The Kirk BH-1 ball head can easily handle this lens. It is my main ball head and I use it for any and all camera setups but when I am standing on the beach shooting surfing or any other sport where I know I will be spending a long time in one area I prefer to use the Wimberley head because it is a bit smoother and easier to pan with the action. It also allows me to set up the weight distribution of the camera and lens combo so I don’t have to worry about the lens crashing into one of the tripod legs. In addition, when shooting surfing, the action happens incredibly fast so not having to lock down the tripod head is a major factor in getting the shot. I can just grab the camera and point it at the surfer to get the shot instead of having to unlock the ball head before moving the camera. While we are on the topic of support systems, I have used a variety of tripods with this lens including the Gitzo 1340 Aluminum (old-school) tripod, the Gitzo GT2541 carbon fiber tripod and more recently the heavy duty Gitzo GT5541LS carbon fiber rig. The GT5541LS is my go to tripod for this lens as it is incredibly robust and can handle the 200-400mm lens with ease. At nine pounds, with the Wimberley head mounted on it, the GT5541LS is not a lightweight tripod set up but having the extra weight comes in handy when the winds are blowing on the north shore (of Oahu).

Yet another nice feature of this lens is that it fits into a professional camera backpack with ease. When I fly to Hawaii to shoot surfing, I pack the 200-400mm lens into my Lowepro Vertex 300 AW along with all of my other photo gear. Of course, fully packed with the 200-400mm lens included, the Vertex 300 can weigh fifty pounds or more. You definitely feel this lens in the bag.  When I pull it out on the beach all of the other surfing photographer’s who shoot with Canon gear start asking questions about it. I know several photographers that have switched to Nikon because of this lens. It is a stellar lens, and if you are in the market for a telephoto lens you can’t go wrong with the 200-400. If you would like more information about the Nikkor 200-400mm VRII visit the Nikon website.

Michael Clark is an internationally published photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images from remote locations around the world. A sampling of his clients include: Apple, Nikon, Red Bull, National Geographic, Outside and Outdoor Photographer.