Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Gear Review: Comparing the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR to the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR

A question that comes up often on various Nikon oriented internet forums is which lens is more suitable, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR, or the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR? Obviously this is a very loaded question, as it depends what the photographer is intending to use the lens for, but I will use this blog post to try and answer the question from my experience with these lenses, which is predominantly nature based. This is not intended to be a technical review, simply comments based upon my own experiences.

I have owned the 200-400/4VR for 3 or 4 years now, and earlier this year picked up the 300/2.8VR as well. I use both lenses on the D3, and have previously used the 200-400 and the 300 on the D200.

Of course, being a zoom, the 200-400 wins here. On DX, the effective focal range of 300-600mm means the 200-400mm is a very effective lens for using for general nature photography, and I used it with success on a number of field trips over the past couple of years. Perhaps the time I was most thankful for the lens was when I took it with me on a safari in Africa. One of the main 'problems' with safari photography in Africa is the amount of dust that finds its way into the camera. This is further amplified by lens changes, so the ideal solution is to have a single lens that covers all eventualities. I found the 200-400mm to be just this, and it was pretty much the only lens I needed to use when shooting out of the safari jeep:


I also took the lens with me on a trip to photograph puffins in Scotland and Northern England, and again the 200-400 on a DX body came into its own, allowing me to shoot birds all day without switching lenses.

Bird with Sand Eels, Staple Island

The flexibility that the 300/2.8 offers is slightly different. Although hand held shooting is not too much of a problem with the 200-400, the lens does tend to get heavy after a while. The 300/2.8 is a slightly smaller and more lightweight lens, and the ergonomics mean that walking around with it in the hand or on the shoulder is comfortable, and can be used for an extended period of time, such as in the shot below where I had been tracking the deer through the woods for some time.

Roe Deer Doe<

Especially since turning to full format, I have been using my telephoto lenses more and more often with teleconverters. This is an advantage of the fixed aperture pro telephotos that do allow the use of teleconverters whilst maintaining all functionality.

However it is with teleconverters that the 300/2.8 has advantages. It is a full stop faster than the 200-400, which means that the light loss caused by the tc-14e and 17e still leaves the photographer with a usable combination - either a 420/4 or a 510/4.8. This should really be compared to the 200-400 together with the 1.4, which, at the top end, becomes a 560/5.6.

With the tc-14e:

Both lenses work fine with this tc, but the focus on the 200-400 does seem to suffer slightly in terms of speed, especially in duller light. In good light the image quality on the 200-400 is fine, but in slightly worse light, the 300mm with tc leaves the 200-400 behind. The following shot was taken with the 300mm on a D200 with the tc-14e, in early morning, overcast light:

High Fives anyone?

With the tc-17e:

The 200-400 works, but has occasional AF problems, and can not be trusted in low light. The 300/2.8 works fine, and AF is still spot on. Image quality wise, the 300 beats the 200-400 here.


Both lenses offer the build quality and usability of every Nikon pro lens. Most switches (for example focus limiters AF on/off) are in the same place on each lens. One notable difference between the two is that with the 300/2.8 the VR is turned on using a ring, whereas the VR on the 200-400 is activated by a switch alongside the other switches. From experience this is a lot harder to see, and a lot easier to knock on and off without noticing.

Image quality:

Both lenses are capable of excellent quality images, both with and without teleconverters. However I have always had a bit of a love hate relationship with the 200-400. I sometimes get the feeling that it really is a good weather lens - if the light is a bit grey and dreary, the 200-400 will amplify that and I will come away with unsatisfying images. The 300/2.8 on the other hand never fails to impress me. Even in lower light, I can still get spot on focus, and sharp contrasty images, such as the following image taken from a boat.

Sea Eagle


To be honest, if I had to sell one of the two lenses, I would keep the 300/2.8, and sell the 200-400. Although the 300 isn't a zoom, what it lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in speed and image quality, and with the teleconverters it is almost as flexible. Especially when paired with the 600/4, it provides the wildlife photographer with an excellent tool set. But remember, both are pro quality lenses, and I am just picking faults. Either lens is capable of top images.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Gear Review: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens

30 or so months ago I wrote a blog reviewing the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D prime lens. When I wrote the article I was still shooting with a DX crop body, and I summised that the 50mm on a DX body was a great portrait lens, and ideal for use at live gigs.

Now I've moved full format with the D3, the 85mm f/1.4D has become my weapon of choice for gig photography, and I find the 24-70mm invariable for using in the studio due to the flexibility of the zoom.

Still, I maintain that the 50mm is an ideal focal length for the above type of photography on a crop body. For a while there was a bit of a gap in the Nikon lens lineup though, as some of the newer crop bodies (like the D60 and most of the newer entry level SLRs) are unable to autofocus with the lenses that don't contain a focus motor, and require an AF-S lens for full functionality.

However, at Photokina in 2008 NIkon updated their prime lens range to also include the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens. Not only did this update the optical formula of the old 50mm f/1.4D lens, it also added an internal motor, making this an AF-S lens, and putting it within the reach of people starting out with the entry level SLR.

The main criticism that internet pundits had of the new 50/1.4 was the price - at around €350 at introduction (can be picked up for €300 now), it was almost three times the price of the 1.8 variety, and for only a slight improvement in light sensitivity, was thought to be a bit expensive.

It was this reason that also stopped me from picking up the 50/1.4 initially - after all, the 50/1,8 had never given me any problems, and with all the other lenses in my arsenal, I wasn't missing out on anything by not having it.

So, fast forward 12 months, with the imminent arrival of our baby, Tabatha (born October 18th 2009!), I'm thinking out my camera strategy :) The 24-70mm is a great general purpose lens on the D3, but it's big, wieldy, and pretty scary to a new born. Add to that the business travel I do, it's a lot easier to take a body and a couple of small primes (think 24mm, 50mm, and maybe either a 16mm fish or an 85mm) than a big zoom lens.

So I decide the 50mm will become my solution for quick, around the house, shooting, and to begin with, the 50/1.8 was working fine, and gave me fine results such as the following:

Tabatha Ayumi

But then, the NAS demons began playing in my head, and, on the way back from visiting hours at the hospital, I passed the camera store, and the rest, as they say, is history.......

Som how does the 50/1.4 compare to the 50/1.8? Well, to be honest, they are both very fine lenses. Both are small, light, and can be tucked away into a corner in a camera bag very easily. There are a couple of advantages of the 50/1.4 that I have noted:

- Firstly, the lens is provided with a lens hood. Although this is only a fairly lightweight plastic, it does provide protection should the lens get knocked or dropped. (of course a lens hood is also available for the 50/1.8, but this is extra cost)
- Next, it has an AF-S motor. With such a small lens, this doesn't help so much with focusing speed, but I have noticed a definite improvement over the amount of time it spends searching for the focus point in low light, compared to the 50/1.8. And of course this makes the lens compatible with some of the newer Nikon cameras
- Finally the lens has the advantage of going down to f/1.4, giving you that extra bit of flexibility when shooting in low light, as well as a nice bright viewfinder. To be honest I have probably spent most of the time shooting with this lens wide open, despite a fair number of people suggesting it is soft until it is stopped down a couple of shots (in fact all shots taken by the 50/1.4 in this blog entry were taken wide open at f/1.4, and I find results more than sharp enough)

Tabatha Ayumi

The 50/1.4 has a plastic lens body, the same as the 50/1.8, although I must say in defense of the 1.8, it does feel slightly more sturdy. It's a 58mm filter size compared to the 52mm on the 1.8, although I have not bothered mounting a filter on this lens, due to the protection the lens hood gives.

Tabatha Ayumi, 5 weeks old

This lens has been mounted on my camera pretty exclusively on the occasions when the D3 is sitting at home and I am not using it on a job. I've found it an ideal lens for (baby) snapshots, and it makes the D3 a lot less imposing than one of my larger pro lenses.

So, do I recommend this lens? That's a difficult one, as the 50/1.8 is such great value for money, so it really boils down to whether or not you need the extra lens speed, and the built in focusing motor. If you have the money, go for it! But if you already have the 50/1.8, you might want to think carefully about upgrading.....

Tabatha Ayumi