Thom article and the 200-400mm

Started May 20, 2008 | Discussions thread
jfriend00 Forum Pro • Posts: 12,507
Re: Thom article and the 200-400mm

Thom Hogan wrote:

Sports break down into three basic categories, and your lens choices
get made around that:

1. No position flexibility, action moves considerably relative to
your position.
2. No position flexibility, most action stays relatively constant
relative to your position (baseball is a good example).
3. Position flexibility.

This is a very useful break-down of different sports. I primarily shoot soccer with a D2Xs (D300 on order) and the 200-400.

It is often possible to have position flexibility in soccer, but the action generally moves so much faster than your position flexibility that the position flexibility is only occasionally useful. For example, if one team is completely domination, you can position yourself in the right half of the field where most of the action is. If there's a corner kick, you "might" be able to run to a good position to shoot that kick, but they might also kick it quickly before you can reposition. Since the ball can change ends in one second, you just can't reposition yourself every time that happens. I end up deciding (often based on lighting) which half of the field I primarily want to shoot, then position myself appropriately and only move for special shots that have a little setup time (a throw-in, a corner kick, a penalty kick). After those shots, I go back to my main spot.

So, I'd actually put soccer in a fourth category.

4. Position flexiblity, but action usually moves much faster and more often than the photographer can. Zoom can really be useful if you need to shoot different parts of the field.

I have no gripes at all about IQ with the 200-400. The main limitation for me has been getting accurate auto-focus when the subject is not large. With 12MP, I'd love to shoot farther down the field and then just crop some, but when I do that, the focus yield goes way down. I find that the subject just really needs to be at least as large as the center focus sensor (the actual sensor, not the indicators in the viewfinder). If it's not, the yield of good focus shots goes way down. Put a dark uniform on the subject and it's even more trouble. Some of this could be because it's an f/4 lens (1/2 the light getting to the auto-focus system as an f/2.8 lens), but some of it is probably just the auto-focus design in the D2Xs. I will be interested to see how the D300 compares when it arrives next week.

I also use the 200-400 for birds in flight. My experience has been basically the same as in soccer. If the subject is close-enough, the IQ, even at 400mm f/4 is phenomenal. If the subject is far way and I'm cropping for some extra zoom, the results are not as good. I don't know exactly why that is unless it's the same auto-focus issue I find in soccer. In soccer, I can usually look at the grass under the player's feet and see whether it was a focus issue or not. In birding, I usually don't have such an easy reference to tell me whether it front focused or back focused.

I might add that my first several months of images with the 200-400 weren't near as good as the ones I take now so somewhere down the line, I learned how to take better shots with it. That implies that there are some technique issues to get the most out of the lens, though I couldn't tell you exactly what they are other than the auto-focus observations. I have only briefly shot with the 400 f/2.8 and 300 f/2.8 (I rented them twice each before I bought the 200-400) and found them both to be very exceptional lenses, but the lack of zoom was a real handicap for the way I shoot soccer and the 300 just wasn't enough reach for a full-sized soccer field.

Before ordering the D300, I thought long and hard about getting the D3 because I'd love it's high ISO performance for sports in poor light and I love the D2X build and form factor which I presume the D3 would be the same. But, I couldn't afford to lose the reach and didn't want to have to buy both a D3 and 600 f/4 just to maintain reach while also losing the flexibility of a zoom. I could have put the TC 1.4 on the 200-400 to try to maintain reach, but now we're only light gathering at f/5.6 which is going to impact auto-focus performance, particularly when light gets low.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the D300 does with the 200-400. I'm reading that it's auto-focus sensors are some what smaller (and more numerous) than those on the D2Xs so I'm wondering if that will help with the "small subject" issue I've had.

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