The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 14
A Wildlife Photographer’s Dream Lens?
Heather Angel never made it a secret that for many years her favourite lens was the manual 200-400mm f/4 Nikkor. You can imagine her delight when the AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor ED 200-400mm f/4G IF lens was introduced. In this issue, Heather reports her findings on this lens
We all have a favourite lens. It is no secret that some years ago my favourite was the manual 200-400mm f/4 Nikkor. So often it provided the perfect range of focal lengths for taking many subjects – notably individual larger mammals or groups of mammals. I first handled this lens whilst working in the States in the 1980s alongside John Shaw who kindly loaned it to me for a short while. I was converted! As soon as I returned home, I put out feelers and managed to pick up a second-hand 200-400mm at a bargain price. Not long afterwards I heard this lens was exchanging hands in the States for up to US$10,000!
But when long autofocus lenses were introduced, I reluctantly left the 200-400mm behind when flying abroad, in favour of the 500mm AF f/4 Nikkor lens. So, you can imagine my delight when the AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor ED 200-400mm f/4G IF lens was introduced – the longest of the AF zoom Nikkors – complete with high-speed AF Internal Focusing (IF) driven by a Silent Wave Motor (SWM) and Vibration Reduction (VR).
Weighing in at 3280g without the lens hood, it is 725g lighter than my old manual lens, which is a bonus; but I still have to decide between taking this or the 500mm AF f/4 Nikkor lens on a flight. Gone are the days when I could check a long lens in the robust metal case stashed in an old kit bag literally dragged through the mud to convey it was not worth stealing. Now that all checked baggage is X-rayed, there is no point in attempting to camouflage a pricey lens.
The black well-padded soft lens case, which comes with the 200-400mm VR lens, is checked in my main bag together with the lens hood. The lens itself with two camera bodies and shorter lenses fit inside a LowePro photopack which stows under the seat on a ‘plane. My 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor is carried in a capacious handbag, together with films (or a slim laptop if shooting digital). Both bags are carried as hand baggage. I first used the 200-400 VR lens overseas in Madagascar last year. Most often I used it on a tripod for taking lemurs sitting on the ground or in trees, but also for isolating tree flowers from the background. Then I had the VR button switched off (using both the VR function and autofocus drains batteries more quickly). But when a sifaka begun leaping across an open space, I grabbed the lens and hand-held it with the VR switched on. Nikon’s VR technology enables hand-held shots to be taken up to three stops slower than for a non-VR lens with the same focal length. In essence, this means that action grab shots without a tripod are now possible.
The VR mechanism works in two modes. Active Mode is used in situations when you and the camera are subjected to constant movement as when travelling in vehicles, on boats or ‘planes. The Normal Mode is used when working on terra firma both when the camera is held steady (in the hand or on a tripod) and when it is panned. If you want to pan the camera to follow a moving animal, you might think VR would not be able to cope, but miraculously, the VR technology can detect when the camera is being panned and compensates accordingly. Many of the best wildlife opportunities occur early or late in the day when the light is poor, which is precisely when VR comes into its own.