For quite some time now my favourite wildlife photography lens has been the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR II.
No, it’s nothing to do with the brand but rather the sharpness and versatility of the zoomable focal range. Combined with a 70-200mm it makes for an must have lens for serious wildlife photography.
During our recent Svalbard Photo Expedition I had the opportunity to shoot with Canon’s version of the 200-400m. With it’s built in 1.4x converter the Canon 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM has got be one of the most sought after lenses on the market today so a big shout out Canon SA for allowing Jono and myself to take the lens along to the white world of Svalbard close to the North Pole.
Now this is not a technical review as you can find many of those online but let’s get this out of the way before I carry on.
Yes, the lens is sharp. Very sharp.
Yes, without the converter the lens focuses very quickly.
Yes, with the converter the lens still focuses fast enough for most situations.
While sailing North in Hinlopenstreet we visited a nesting colony of Guillemots I took the 200-400 for a spin and two fighting Guillemots, who were really pissed off with each other, gave me a great opportunity to check the focusing speed of the lens.
The two birds thrashed around in the water for a good 10 minutes during which we fired away. No it is quite obvious that the resulting images would include some splashes and out of focus images but I was very impressed with the way the lens kept up with the birds as the moved all over the place – side to side and towards and away from us.
The following two consecutive frames show the two birds and how the lens, without the converter, managed to keep up with them.
I didn’t use the 1.4x extender all that much but did get this one shot of two Guillemots against the rocks.
Jono shot with the 200-400mm quite a bit, and most of the time with the converter, and the resulting image quality was amazing.
For static subjects, like this Walrus, the 1.4x extender at 400mm is perfect and sharp as any other lens out there.
Jono shot this from a moving zodiac and in pretty big swells and even then the 560mm was clear and captured the Puffin perfectly.
One of the things that I found quite different about the lens was the design which sees the focus ring located closer to the camera where in most other lenses, such as the 70-200mm and 16-35mm, the focus ring is located away from the camera with the zoom ring closer to the camera.
From an ergonomic point of view hand holding the lens, like in the image above, gave it the most balanced feel and made for very comfortable shooting – something which is quite important in wildlife photography and when you are g0ing to be hand holding your lens for extended periods of time.
This hand position and the location of the focus ring did however mean that every now and then, when turning the focus ring you would inadvertently tweak the zoom ring as well, even if just with he palm Not great and something that if you are not aware of it, could result in a slightly soft images.
When you move your hand a bit forward to get more towards the focus ring, the zoom ring sits in the palm of your hand but the balance goes off and the lens and camera combo drops towards the back meaning you have to hold on a bit tighter to keep the lens balanced and ready to shoot.
Granted, I was using a 1Dx in this example and with a 5D3 the balance was still off a bit but not my that much.
So is this balance a major issue? One that should influence your decision to buy one?
Probably not as there is no doubt that this is an amazing piece of glass and absolutely ideal for wildlife photography. Canon did a helluva job on this lens and I guess that once you are aware of this and with a bit of practise I am sure the balance and focus ring issue will be a non-event.
Also, I am quite pedantic with regards to how my gear feels in hand and works out in the field so maybe it’s just me.
So, if I had the cash would I get one of these lenses?
Have you shot with the 200-400mm? What were your thoughts?
Until next time.
Gerry van der Walt
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