PDN Review: Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II

Aug 6, 2010
By Dan Havlik

Prod Reviews Nikon AF-S Nikkor

There are several small but significant upgrades to Nikon’s new 200-400mm f/4 workhorse.
If you wanted to see how much the sports photography landscape has changed in the last four years, all you had to do was look at the sidelines of this year’s World Cup in South Africa. Gone was the ocean of “white” lenses—a tell-tale sign of the dominance of Canon’s top-of-the-line L-series glass in recent years—replaced by almost equal parts black lenses, suggesting Nikon has made some significant inroads in the sports photography market since the launch of the D3 digital SLR in 2007. (Quite a few times during the World Cup, I noticed that Nikon shooters actually outnumbered their Canon counterparts. Times have changed indeed.)

This is due, in part, to the popularity of the D3 and its successor the D3s, but it also shows the strength of Nikkor lenses. While Canon seems to be moving its attention to digital SLRs that shoot HD video, Nikon looks to be shoring up its pro glass lineup with a slew of Nikkor introductions. Here’s what we’ve seen so far this year: 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II; 300mm f/2.8 VR II; 24mm f/1.4; 16-35mm f/4G ED VR; and now, the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II.

In pro lens release terms, it hasn’t been a long time since the predecessor to the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II was introduced back in 2003. And while the new version, on paper, might seem to have only a few upgrades, in real world use I found the changes provided significant advantages.

For one there’s the new VR (Vibration Reduction) II technology. I first got to try VR II on the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II while shooting the MLS Cup back in November. What I found was that I could handhold the lens at 2-3 stops slower than normal and still get very sharp images. That held true with the new 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II even though that lens was several pounds heavier than the 70-200mm. Mostly I shot the 200-400mm using a monopod but Jordan Matter (www.jordanmatter.com), a photographer friend of mine who helps me test Nikon lens, found he had no problem hand-holding the lens to shoot portraits with VR II engaged. (He could only handhold the 7.4-pound lens for short periods before his arms got tired.)

I primarily shot soccer with the 200-400mm using a Manfrotto monopod and got tack-sharp images of players dribbling furiously toward me in late afternoon light. I mention the time of day because several of my shots were seriously backlit and the lens’ new Nano Crystal Coat—not available on the previous version—did a great job reducing ghosting and flare. Jordan noticed the same thing in his backlit portraits with his subjects looking pristine and the f/4 aperture and 9-blade diaphragm producing lush bokeh. We both found the lens struggled slightly to find focus in those backlit scenarios but that’s not unusual even with the best glass.

Two other nice touches to the VR II mode on the 200-400mm include Automatic Panning detection—so you don’t have to press any buttons or flip any switches if you suddenly decide to pan—and Active VR Mode, which adjusts for movement from a moving vehicle.

Along with a choice between M (Manual) or M/A (Autofocus with manual override), Nikon’s added a setting called A/M which makes the manual override for autofocus less sensitive. This is a small addition to Nikon’s latest lenses—it was available on the 300mm f/2.8 VR II—but extremely helpful if you’ve ever accidentally lost autofocus by inadvertently touching the focus ring.

Another nice new touch is AF Recall Mode which lets you set a point of focus in the lens’s “memory” so you can return to it quickly. This is helpful, for instance, if you want to get a fix on home plate or a goalie for that crucial shot without having to lock in the focus again.

The Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II has most of Nikon’s tried and true lens technology including the quick and quiet Silent Wave Motor for stealthy focusing; and ED glass with multiple aspherical elements to reduce chromatic aberrations. I’ve written about this technology many times before so all I’m going to say once again is: it works.

The lens is also extremely durable with a die-cast aluminum body that’s sealed to prevent dust and moisture. I also appreciated the layer of Meniscus glass to protect the front element of the lens from scratching.


Nikon further adds to its arsenal of full-frame (aka FX) glass with the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II, a wonderful new lens for sports and nature photographers that adds several small but significant upgrades including VR II image stabilization technology and Nano Crystal Coat to reduce ghosting and flare in backlit subjects. Owners of the previous version of this lens may balk at its spendy $7,000 pricetag but those who don’t own a Nikkor 200-400mm should definitely consider dipping into their piggybank for this sparkling new superzoomer.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm

Pros: The ultimate Nikon lens for sports and nature photographers just got better with several small but significant upgrades.

Cons: Pricey!

Price: $7,000

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