400mm Professional lens recommendations please.

Started Sep 1, 2005 | Discussions thread
Ron Reznick Veteran Member • Posts: 8,972
Re: 200-400 vs. long primes

Yes, I've tried the lens. Here are my thoughts regarding this zoom vs. primes:

First, there are some situations where having a zoom is infinitely preferable. When shooting sports in good light, or in certain wildlife situations where the subjects are rapidly changing distances, if your desire is to be able to consistently change your composition at medium apertures the zoom is unbelievably handy. When you shoot with a prime in situations like that what you need to do is mount a TC or remove it, or work with the focal length you have and alter your composition based on your focal length. Having a second lens around on another body is also handy. However, given that sort of situation, the zoom is really an excellent choice.

Another situation where the zoom is a very good choice: let's say you want only one lens in this focal range, and you don't often need to shoot in lower light (or if you do, the subjects will be mostly static). Having the flexibility of the zoom may be better than having the prime-lens and TCs for you.

Now, let's look at the overall situation and why I prefer the prime lens options. The 200-400 is a large lens (physically, it's the size of the 500mm), and while it does a pretty nice job at f/4 (esp. at 200mm), it requires stopping down to f/5-f/5.6 depending on focal length to reach what I consider the 'sweet spot'. To maintain ultimate quality at dawn or dusk (or into shadow), you will likely want to stop down a little, and if the subject is moving that means the shutter speed will be lower so you need to raise the ISO. Also, the lens is pretty large and heavy, and unless you're pretty strong you won't be able to handhold long, and the results will be marginal unless the shutter speed is pretty high. It's also a lot of lens to carry into the field -- the size is more of a problem than the weight is. It's tough to hike with it (the same problem as hiking with the 500mm), which means that you'll want to work from a pack, slowing down access to the lens.

The 300mm, on the other hand, while not all that much lighter (about a pound), is a heck of a lot smaller. Based on my evaluations of the results of the 300VR with TC14e, it is about equal to the performance of the 400mm end of the zoom at various apertures, so there is no loss there other than the convenience of rapid focal length changes. It is one heck of a lot easier to pack into the field, much faster to access from a lens case, and it can be hiked with exposed (slung on a strap), allowing faster and easier access. You can get top-grade results at f/2.8, thus at 300mm you can gain 1.7 to 2 stops depending on your standards, with more isolation of the subject (if that is what you want to do). You'll have a higher shutter speed, and can stop action better... plus, you can handhold the lens much more easily with a higher-grade result. The contrast is higher, and detail resolution is as well. I consider the 300mm f/2.8 to be the most flexible telephoto, but of course you can't shoot the field of view at 200mm as you can with the 200-400, and you can't switch focal lengths as fast. You're trading ease of carry/use in the field, an extra stop+ to 2 stops, handholdability and additional isolation and contrast for convenience, speed of focal length changes, and the 200mm field of view when comparing these two lenses.

The 500mm is the same size and weight as the 200-400 (bigger hood though), but doesn't have VR and really isn't a hand-holding lens at all. I've shot handheld with it a few times, but that really isn't a good way to use this lens. You need a LOT of light to do it successfully. What you're getting there is the ability to shoot at 500mm at f/4 cleanly, with high contrast, keeping your shutter speed and level of isolation high. The 200-400 can shoot at 560mm with the TC14e, but you really need to be at f/8 to get high grade results to my standards. That's two stops. Lots of shutter speed difference there. I can shoot at 700mm wide open at f/5.6 with a small reduction in sharpness and contrast, or stop down to f/8 and achieve excellence. I can shoot the 500mm at 850mm at f/8 and get high-grade results. That's one heck of a lot of reach, and AF speed and accuracy is still high with either TC.

I don't mind working with two lenses. It's more expensive that way, but I can achieve excellence and good focal length flexibility with the use of TCs, while still keeping the isolation high due to the wider apertures I can use at various focal lengths. I do have to mount/dismount TCs. I can either work with the 300mm on one body handheld along with the 500mm, or the 300mm plus TC on the tripod and the 200mm handheld with or without TC on the other body, or the 200 along with the 500mm (this is why I got the 200mm, really... to use with the 500mm -- I can gain a lot of low light capability and can still shoot at 300mm while carrying a short but stubby and heavy lens). I have a 135/2DC, which is a magnificent lightweight medium telephoto for use in a forest or other situations and is a perfect complement to the 300mm, but it can't be used with TCs and does not have AFS focusing. I like that lens a lot, but got the 200mm recently to see how it would be on a wildlife shoot (Alaska), and find that it is an excellent complementary lens for the 300mm (I already knew it would be perfect for use with the 500mm), allowing me to handhold with AFS and VR and use TCs for extended reach.

I've spent quite a bit of time with various zooms. I've not owned the 200-400, but I have shot with one. I've owned quite a number of other zooms though, and always end up going back to primes -- at the shorter focal lengths there is a tremendous size/weight difference, plus the aperture flexibility to consider. At the longer focal lengths the size differences aren't as huge, but the aperture flexibility still exists.

Ron Reznick

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