The AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR (180-400mm f/4E) and AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR SWM IF (200-500mm f/5.6E) offer a similar focal range for Nikon shooters after a telephoto zoom for sports and wildlife.
With one costing almost ten grand more, yes TEN GRAND, we were intrigued to see how much better it actually is. Armed with a couple of D5’s, we headed off to shoot some sport, wildlife and the odd event to find out where all that extra cash goes.
|200-500mm f/5.6E||180-400mm f/4E|
|FX mount (DX compatible)||FX mount (DX compatible)|
|200 - 500mm focal length||180 - 400mm & 250 - 550mm|
|f/5.6 u2013 f/32 aperture range||f/4 u2013 f/32 & f/5.6 u2013 f/45|
|NORMAL + SPORT VR modes||NORMAL + SPORT VR modes|
|2.2m minimum focus distance||2m minimum focus distance|
|95mm filter thread||C-PL405 circular polarizing filter compatible|
|Protruding front element||Internal zoom and focus|
|108x267.mm (LxD)||128x362.5mm (LxD)|
|Price: u00a31,349||Price: 10999|
The 180-400mm f/4E is phenomenal. Built to withstand the demands of regular pro use, knocks image quality out of the park through its standard focal range, with the convenience of a built-in teleconvertor when you need more reach.
At £10,999 it’s not viable for most enthusiasts though, which is where the 200-500mm f/5.6E comes in. Build and image quality remain good on the cheaper lens; in fact I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was at f/5.6.
The 200-500mm isn’t very small or light, it’s still a big lens, but it’s much more realistic for most of us and will have huge appeal for enthusiast Nikon shooters after a telephoto zoom.
Although these lenses basically cover the same focal range and offer similar features, there are some key differences.
The 200-500mm f/5.6E is in the enthusiast camp in terms of build – that doesn’t mean bad, it’s perfectly well-built – but uses lighter and cheaper materials compared to the 180-400mm f/4E, which is built like a tank.
The 200-500mm’s front element also protrudes as you zoom, and rotates when focusing, so it’s not fully weather-sealed like the 180-400mm f/4E.
The 200-500mm f/5.6E’s offers a constant f/5.6 aperture, so you get the same transmission at 200mm and 500mm, which is a bonus. The 180-400mm f/4E offers that extra stop though, so more light for the focus system, greater depth-of-field and the possibility of faster shutter speeds.
If you need more reach though, just flick the built-in 1.4x teleconvertor switch – conveniently located at the base – and instantly switch to a 250-550mm f/5.6.
Another significant difference is the 180-400mm f/4E’s assignable function buttons and focus memory set controls. These give quick access to change focus settings and reset focus to a pre-determined distance using buttons on the barrel, which are much appreciated by pros working in fast paced environments.
Both lenses feature Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR), offering up to 4.5 stops of image stabilization and three VR modes – Off, Normal and Sport, with the latter only correcting vertical movements for use when panning.
Other similarities include the standard A/M M/A focus switch and full-time manual focus override, a focus limiter to prevent excessive focus hunting and a tripod collar.
There’s no getting away from the fact the 180-400mm f/4E is a big, heavy piece of glass. The build quality is immense, you can use it in the rain and shoot 400mm f/4 or 550mm f/5.6. That makes it versatile too, but it’s a big beast.
I used it mainly handheld but, to be honest, it’s the kind of lens you take to a specific shoot in the Peli-style hard case and set up on a monopod/tripod. You really don’t want to be lugging it around too much.
So, to be honest, when the head-to-head testing was done, I found myself reaching for the 200-500mm f/5.6E more often. It was just easier.
Autofocus performance on the 200-500mm f/5.6E is pretty good too, I didn’t have any major complaints and was pretty pleased with my ‘hit rate’.
It’s not in the same league as the 180-400mm F/4E though, which coupled with the 153-point tracking system on the D5, was phenomenal.
Focus accusation was lightening quick and tracking fast moving canoeists on the rapids it kept up really well.
Ergonomically I found handling on both very good, too. The rubberized zoom rings are big and easy to locate with your eye to the viewfinder and switches well-placed, with a reassuringly robust action.
Let’s face it, it’s really all about how great the images are at the maximum aperture on lenses like this.
Sure, you may stop down from time to time, but to get those fast shutter speeds for action and shallow depth-of-field to isolate the subject, you’re shooting wide open.
So how much sharper is the 180-400mm wide open and how does image quality hold up when you drop in the 1.4x teleconvertor? Let’s take a look.
Below are a few sample photos taken with the AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR and AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR SWM IF.
400mm f/4 vs 400mm f/5.6
Shooting at 400mm wide open, the 180-400mm f/E is definitely sharper at 400mm f/4, compared to 200-500mm at 400mm f/5.6 – check out the crops of the deers face.
Shooting the deer from around 10 meters or so, so not close to the lens’s minimum focus distance, I’d say the bokeh is broadly the same. So you get sharper results, the same shutter speed with a lower ISO and roughly the same background rendering using the 180-400mm wide open at full zoom.
550mm f/5.6 vs 500mm f/5.6
Snap in the teleconvertor and the 180-400mm f/4E remains fractionally sharper at 550mm f/5.6, compared to 500mm f/5.6 on 200-500mm, but there’s not much in it. Again check out the crops.
It’s the same with the bokeh. Maybe it’s a tiny bit smoother using the 180-400mm at 550mm f/5.6, but the 200-500mm is still lovely.
Corner resolution on zoom lenses is often an issue, but both these super telephoto zooms are edge-to-edge sharp, even at the maximum aperture. Again at f/4 the 180-400mm f/4E is particularly impressive, with razor sharp results in the corner.
At f/5.6 on both lenses resolution remains very acceptable in the corner, matching the overall sharpness of the shot. As you can see from the crops though, they’re not in the same league as the 180-400mm f/4E.
At the wider end of the focal range, shooting the 180-400mm at f/4 compared to the 200-500mm at f/5.6, the optically superior pro lens takes the resolution spoils. Again the 200-500mm is good, but it’s not quite at the level of the 180-400mm f/4E.
The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ generally holds true with photo gear. With the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E you’re paying for its solid weather-sealed build, f/4 constant aperture up to 400mm, the convenience of a built-in teleconvertor and outstanding image quality through 180-400mm.
It’s squarely a pro lens. If you need the convenience of long telephoto zoom for certain sports, demand the best image quality, will haul it from gig to gig shooting in all weathers, it’s worth the £10,999.
That sort of money is well off the scale for enthusiasts shooting sport and wildlife though. At £1,349 the 200-500 f/5.6E is much more realistic, both in price and usability. It’s not in the same league as the 180-400mm for build, and image quality at f/5.6, compared to f/4 on the 180-400mm, isn’t as good, but it’s still very respectable.
There’s more examples on the flickr gallery for you to assess for yourselves, but to my eye sharpness at f/5.6 on the 200-500mm is still very good, if not outstanding, and I didn’t notice any significant issues with fringing or vignetting.
If you need the best Nikon long telephoto zoom, the 180-400mm f/4E is the one to go for. For most of us however the 200-500mm f/5.6E is more than good enough and puts high quality long lens photography within reach.