Since its introduction in 2004, the 200-400VR has become “the” lens for wildlife photographers and for very good reasons. The main ones being it’s sharp, light, focuses close and is one sexy lens! I consider this my big game lens and use it in that way one helluva lot and mostly handheld. Now there is the VRII model which takes this legend a little further down the road. IMHO, the VRI is a tad better than the VR. It just rocks!
Does the VR work? Well, the instruction book states that when using the 200-400VR on a tripod, the VR should be turned on. In the beginning, I wasn’t really excited about using the VR, I didn’t see any better image quality when shooting at 1/20th. Using standard long lens technique did a fine job in delivering sharp images. That was until a few days later when I was shooting in an awful wind. Long lenses were chattering something fierce. The VR really proved itself then producing very sharp results at slow shutter speeds. But in general day to day shooting, if the lens on a tripod (yes VR stays on with this lens when on a tripod unless shooting video) or your hand holding technique is solid, the VR doesn’t get you sharper images. The one thing that bugs me about the VR though is how the image “jumps” in the viewfinder at times when the VR activates. On a few occasions the image jumped enough to force me to recompose. I couldn’t find a pattern in this so as to prevent it, I just had to mentally be prepared for it possibly happening.
The 200-400VR resurrects an old long lens feature, the Memory Set. Long ago in the old EDIF telephoto, a manual Memory Set was part of the lens. The Memory Set permits you to focus the lens at a specific distance. Obviously the distance is where you think the subject will be. With the old manual focus EDIF lenses (and some of the first AF lenses), this is the classic example of how you would use the Memory Set. You’re shooting a baseball game from behind home plate. Getting ready for a potential steal at 2nd base, you prefocus on 2nd and use the Memory Set to create a focus preset. You photograph the game and then when the time comes, you turn the focus until the focus ring clicks into place at the Memory Set. You’ve got a sharp image of the steal at 2nd. The 200-400VR has an electronic Memory Set and it works really slick. Focus on the point you want to set the focus point and then simply depress the Memory Set button. To have the lens focus back at that point you selected, depress either the AF-L or AF-ON or one of the four AF buttons on the lens barrel. The lens snaps into focus at the preset point. It’s really sweet to have Memory Set back!
For over a decade, Nikon long lenses have had a filter built into the front. For some reason, for the first time Nikon enclosed a case for this filter. The case is empty inside the lens case for the 200-400 because the filter is where it belongs, on the front of the lens. While I’ve not experienced it myself, there is a possibility that this filter might create a hallo or ghost when shooting a bright subject. If this happens, you have a case to place the filter in.
When it comes to image quality, the lens is tack sharp! You can focus from 6.6′ to infinity in a snap knowing the lens will deliver. The zoom is a twist-turn (would have liked push-pull) and is a true zoom. The 200-400VR works flawlessly with the TC-14e, TC-17e and TC-20e3 but not a system I would use. When used on the D3x, D3s or D3 with current firmware, AF operation with the TC-20e3 is slow at best. Sorry, I don’t know how it performs on other bodies, I’ve not shot with them.
You notice the 200-400VR is sporting a LensCoat. This is great protection but note I don’t use every piece of the LensCoat that comes for the 200-400. That’s a personal preference. It also has the replace tripod foot, the RRS LCF-14.
Ever since I was shown a prototype of the 200-400VR lens, I’ve owned one. The original 200-400 zoom was a monster in size, dealy sharp and very expensive. I’m glad the VR model only retains the two of the important aspects of the original, focal length and sharpness.
I depend on this lens for so much of my photography, I have it with me no matter what it takes. It is wicked sharp at all focal lengths. It focuses down to within 6.6″ , incredibly well balanced for handholding and is just one sweet lens. Our first visit to photograph Kodiak Bears, I had the 200-400 with me and it was great. I was often walking around and getting in places that I could only handhold. The lens just rocks! Here’s a little more trivia for ya.
Photo captured by D2Xs, 200-400VR on Lexar digital film