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Zoom Telephoto AF Zoom Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 G-AFS ED-IF VR Autofocus Lens


First Impressions

Wow, talk about alphabet soup. :lol: The title of this blog post is the way Nikon describes one of their newest lenses. It’s quite a mouthful, but each set of letters represents an important feature. I had been anticipating the release of this lens since last summer when it was first announced. It took quite a while for Nikon to ramp up production, and even today it is very difficult to find this lens in stock anywhere. I was fortunate enough to pick one up about a month ago during the few days B&H Photo Video had them in stock, and I have started taking pictures with it. So far, I am very pleased.

The lens title breaks down as follows:

  • AF = Autofocus
  • 200-400 = Focal length range
  • f/4 = fixed maximum aperture throughout the range
  • G = No manual aperture ring
  • AFS = Autofocus with the Silent Wave Motor technology
  • ED = Extra-low Dispersion glass
  • IF = Internal focus
  • VR = Vibration Reduction

I plan to write more about some of these various features in future blog posts, but for now I would like to talk about my initial impressions after using the lens instead. I have taken it to a soccer game and also for a short walk around a lake at our neighborhood greenbelt. While taking pictures at the soccer game I found that 200mm (the widest angle for this lens) was often too close, so I didn’t take too many pictures. I was really anxious to try out the VR (Vibration Reduction) feature at the game, but I think I need to change where I sit to take pictures.

The walk around the greenbelt was much more productive. Birds are (for the most part) smaller than children, so having the extra reach out to 400mm was very beneficial. I did not take a tripod on my walk and I did activate the VR (Vibration Reduction) feature. I was using my digital body (D70) for these shots.

Portability (Weight and Size)

This lens is heavy. For quite a few years I owned an older 600mm F4 prime lens. That was a great lens! It was, however, not a lens that you would take on a casual walk. It was not usable without a tripod. I hoped that this new lens would be easier to manage and therefore would get used more often. It weighs in just over 7 pounds whereas the 600mm F4 was almost double that. This lens is just over a foot long (14.1 inches). The “IF” or internal focus is really nice, because it means that the lens stays the same size during focusing rather than extended or contracting. (The zoom works the same way.) Yet even with the weight I was able to easily carry it on my walk around the park. I found that I would rest the lens on my shoulder rather than try to cradle it in my arms. After a few minutes it seemed quite natural to drop the lens down from my shoulder and go into a crouch (a “human tripod” so to speak) and snap off a few pictures.

I think that a monopod would be a perfect addition to this lens, and I plan to try one out and see. But it certainly seems to be usable without any support.

Zoom and Focus

One of the first pictures I took on my walk was this one of an Egret (image has been resized for the blog post):

egret_full.jpg

I took this picture with the lens fully extended at 400mm (which is equivalent to 600mm on the D70 body) and wide open at f/4. Most images look good when they are viewed at a smaller resolution because you can’t see as many defects. So the next test was to zoom in on the digital image and take a closer look. Here is the same image cropped down to just the egret (image has been resized as well):

egret_zoom.jpg

I think the egret still looks great even after taking a closer look. But the real proof is in the eyes. When taking pictures of wildlife I believe that the eyes are the most important aspect of the picture. If the eyes are dead, so is the image. So here is the egret face. The image has been cropped but is shown at the full resolution:

egret_face.jpg

As a reminder, this picture was taken with the lens fully extended to 400mm and was being hand-held rather than mounted on a tripod. I think it’s an amazing shot. :) I don’t mean that it’s an award-winning picture that should be in an Audubon bird calendar. I do mean that the technology in the lens enabled me to capture a picture that would not have been possible otherwise.

Vibration Reduction

A few years ago we went on a vacation with my parents. They had picked up some Canon binoculars that used a new technology called Image Stabilization or IS. It sounded like a gimmick to me. :) However the technology is no gimmick, it really works and works amazingly well. From what I understand there is a processor and a gyroscope and some other stuff inside the binoculars that - when activated - will stabilize the image that you see through the binoculars. This is done by moving the physical glass elements around in the opposite direction from the movement of the binoculars themselves. It’s magic. :)

Canon released their first IS lens in 1995. Nikon came out with VR technology a few years later. The lens I am writing about is my first VR lens, and I expect that it won’t be my last. It works in much the same way as described earlier; there is a gyroscope and a processor that moves the internal lens elements around to stabilize the image, erm, reduce the vibration caused by camera shake. (This is why being first to market is often beneficial; you get to pick the name of the technology. IS is much more descriptive to me than VR. But I’m not switching to Canon equipment just for that. :-P )

There are several VR settings for this lens. The first option is whether to turn it on or off, which seems natural enough. The second option is whether to use VR in “active” or “normal” mode. Normal mode is supposed to be used when panning the lens, either on a tripod or hand-held. Active mode is intended for use in more extreme cases, such as taking pictures from a moving car. I think the difference is how aggressive the processor is. During normal mode there is a certain amount of horizontal movement that is expected and therefore goes uncorrected. During active mode the processor is more aggressive and works to counteract motion in all directions. I haven’t done any formal (or informal for that matter) testing on this yet.

I can say that I saw a definite advantage to the VR feature while on my walk. Much like my Canon binoculars (yes, I did buy a set for myself after trying them out) you can hear a definite “click” when the VR starts up. The image in the camera viewfinder snaps or locks into view at the same time. This is not a placebo effect, this is real technology at work. I plan to give the VR more of a workout and will post those results later.

Summary

This lens is expensive and hard to get right now. But the combination of size, weight, and features make this a very attractive package. I expect that I will get a lot of use and hopefully many awesome images from this glass.

Image Data
All images were captured with a Nikon D70 on a Sandisk Extreme III compact flash card. I used aperture priority mode to ensure shallow depth of field.

Lens Focal Length Digital Equivalent Aperture Shutter Speed
Nikon 200-400mm 400mm 600mm f4 1/800

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