Nikon 80-400 Vs 300mm vs 70-200mm + TCs

Posted on by Steve

Nikon AF-S 80-400mmG VS Nikon 300mm VS Nikon 70-200mm + Teleconverters

With the long awaited update of the Nikon 80-400mm now a reality, I know there are truckloads of wildlife photographers asking, “What’s the best option to get to 400mm?”

Now, if you’re searching for a full-on review of the 80-400mm, you’ll need to look elsewhere  This article is going to focus on the best options to get you to 400mm – the minimum you really need for serious wildlife photography.

The newly updated AF-S 80-400mm seems the most obvious answer, but it’s pricy at $2700. The updates were significant though, adding better optics, better VR (Vibration Reduction), and faster (MUCH faster) AF.

The other option is the AF-S 300mm F4. It’s a fantastically sharp, reliable lens with snappy AF, although VR is painfully absent. Add a 1.4 TC (teleconverter) and you’re at 420mm – very respectable for most big game and many birds. Additionally, this combo is over $1000 cheaper than the 80-400mm above, making it a very tempting choice if you’re on a more limited budget.

The third option is the AF-S 70-200mm 2.8G with a 2X converter (giving you a 140-400mm). Not only do you have VR, you also have an amazingly good 70-200mm 2.8 at your disposal when you go this route. However, the combined price of this with the teleconverter is roughly the same price as the 80-400mm. Of course, if you already own or need a 70-200mm, then you’re probably wondering if this might just be the answer.

I happen to own all three of the lenses above at the time of this writing, so I went outside and did some tests shots. Hopefully the results help answer the burning question of which lens / combo is sharper.

My Test Method:

I shot all of these using a D800e, a 3 series Gitzo tripod and BH-55 ballhead, mirror lockup (waiting 4 seconds or so between when the mirror went up and when I released the shutter), and cable release. All were focused via LiveVew and shot at ISO 100, standard Jpegs. All that said, I’m not a professional “lens tester” but I think I have my bases covered.

Note – rather than putting the full name of the lens in each image, here’s the exact gear I’m using:

Nikon AF-S 80-400mm F4.5-5.6G VR

Nikon AF-S 300mm F4 ED

Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 VRII

Nikon TC14EII

Nikon TC20EIII

The first test scene, the deck:

Let’s look at how these lenses fare on the long end with this scene.

80-400mm VS 300mm F4 + 1.4TC – Wide Open (Note – There is a discrepancy in image size below for two reasons – #1 - the 300mm F4 + 1.4 is actually a 420mm lens.  #2- It’s been determined that the 80-400mm is actually closer to 75-385mm lens, not a true 400mm. Rounding up is pretty common with zooms, and frankly a few mm isn’t going to make a difference in the real world. )

Since teleconverters aren’t always at their best when the lens is wide open, I stopped down 2/3rds of a stop. It evens things out sharpness-wise, plus you’re a little closer with the 300mm + 1.4 TC combo. The bad news is you’re 2/3rd of a stop slower too…

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget the 70-200mm and 2x combo vs the 80-400mm – No contest this time. (Note – I tried stopping down with this combo on the next scene, you can see those images in the next section.)

Those were the first photos, but as I was writing this, I decided I should try some more subjects and also do some further comparisons. So…

Test scene #2 – Prestone Bottle

So, first, the results at 400mm as we did above. Again, it’s close with an edge going to the zoom, the 70-200mm is way behind. Note that this set is wide open at 5.6 for this one:

For this next image the 80-400mm was left wide open and the 300mm + TC and 70-200mm + TC were both stopped down 1 stop to F8.

You can see that going down 1 stop really brings the 80-400mm and the 300mm F4 + 1.4 TC much closer in terms of sharpness – however, the 80-400mm is still at F5.6 – a huge one stop advantage. At F8 it seems like the 70-200mm + 2xTC is starting to get usable, but it’s still no contest.

What about the 300mm F4 vs the 80-400mm at 300mm? Here they are, both wide open:

No surprise here – the 300mm F4 wins. Not only is is sharper, this time it has the 1 stop advantage. Although, the zoom doesn’t do too bad.

Next I thought I’d try the same test above with the 80-400mm set to 200mm and put it against the 70-200mm at 200mm. Here are the results:

Wide open, it’s too close to call with the edge looking to favor the 70-200mm, however, wide open for the 70-200mm is nearly 2 stops faster – pretty significant. Stop the 70-200mm down to F5.6 (about where the 80-400mm is at that focal length), and it easily smokes the 80-400mm.

Scene # 3 – the birdhouse. This time the subject is at least twice as far away as our first tests.

Again, we’ll go 400mm, but this time I went ahead and just stopped the 70-200mm down to F8, the other two are wide open:

Honestly, this time I really don’t see enough difference between the 80-400mm and the 300mm + 1.4TC to go one way or the other. Although that 70-200mm + 2X TC still struggles quite a bit even with the advantage of being stopped down.

Real World Test

Since most of us aren’t spending our time popping off images of bird houses and Prestone bottles, here’s a quick sample shot I took out at the marsh the other day. It’s pretty much my worst photo of an egret ever, but it does go to show how the lens performs under real world conditions. Handheld out the truck window, F5.6:

 

80-400mm + 1.4 Teleconverter

I had an overwhelming number of requests for what the 80-400mm + 1.4 TC looked like. These are shot from a tripod with VR on, ISO 400, F8.

So, here’s a couple more shots. First, the infamous Prestone bottle:

This was shot under sunlight while the previous images were shot in the shade (note under shade you tend to get lower contrast images, so this is pretty ideal for this setup). Under these conditions, it did really well in the sharpness department, giving up very little to the teleconverter. However contrast seems to have suffered a bit. Still, a little post processing and this would look just fine.

Next I decided to give you a more realistic subject, my dog Duke.

First, here’s the eye area right out of the camera. It’s not too bad, but it’s got that soft, low contrast look common to shots taken with zooms lenses and teleconverters, despite the contrasty conditions provided by the overhead sun.

However, I kind of figured that just a bit of unsharp mask in Photoshop would help (this is probably just a bit too much). Here’s the result:

It didn’t take much to pull a TON of detail out. This would print just fine, even large.

All that said, this lens with a teleconverter would NOT be my preferred setup for wildlife. Although it gets you to 550mm, it’s also effectively an F8 lens! Ouch! 90% of my wildlife work is done in the first hour of the day or the last – and F8 is just too slow in my opinion.  The combination of slower AF and being forced to add one more stop of ISO isn’t a place I like to go.

Of course, if your subjects hang out in sunlight (sports teams, aviation, zoos, Duke, etc), and you really need the extra reach, the teleconverter is a viable option.

Also of note is that I found this combination seemed to make getting sharp images at 550mm more difficult that it really should have been. I’ve used a LOT of long glass over the years and I can tell you that any combination of a Nikon 500mm / 600mm lens with or without TC would have produced a higher percentage of sharp images. It seems unreasonably difficult to keep this combo sufficiently stable to avoid motion blur. I have a hunch the tripod collar might be to blame; it’s not as robust as it could be. If you do use this combo, I highly recommend trying to stay 1/500th second or higher (1/1000th + would be ideal)

Conclusions:

OK, before we get too far into my opinions, keep in mind that there may be some sample variation out there in the real world. Without teleconverters, I find all the lenses in this article exceedingly sharp and capable. My 1.4x teleconverter has also always been sharp and not only works well with the 300mm F4 (as show above), but also works good with my 600mm. The 2X converter that seems so hard on the 70-200mm above works amazingly well on my 600mm, so I’m inclined to think it’s a good copy as well.

That said, your results may vary, the above are what I was able to come up with and I hope they are helpful :)

Soooo…. My thoughts.

In my opinion, although the 80-400mm didn’t win all the battles, it did win the war.

The 70-200mm with a 2x converter just can’t keep up. It’s probably OK for some uses, but it’s just not as good as the other two options, even stopped down. If you really need 400mm, I’d look to the other two choices unless you’re only printing small or displaying on the web.

So, of the remaining two options, should you go 80-400mm or 300mm + 1.4TC?

Advantages / Disadvantages

Price – First, some perspective. Long glass is pricy, even a 300mm F2.8 is nearly $6000, a 500mm is closer to $9,000! So, from that perspective, either route described below is a bargain.

That said…

The 80-400 is, at the time of this writing, nearly $1000 more than the 300mm AND 1.4 TC! Advantage – 300mm combo.

Teleconverters – The 300mm F4 has always taken teleconverters well and, as you saw above, with the TC it does get in a bit closer than the 80-400mm. Additionally  this also takes the 1.7TC well (sorry I no longer own it so I can’t show you), giving you a 510mm lens! I did try the 1.4 with the 80-400mm with less than stellar results (I need to test that further)- Advantage - 300mm combo.

Sharpness - Although most of the time the 300mm just gets edged out by the zoom at 400mm, it’s crazy sharp when it doesn’t have the teleconverter attached. However, the reason you and I are even looking at this is because we need more than 300mm, so I’m juuussst giving the nod to the 80-400mm. Advantage - Zoom

Speed – The 300mm is an F4 – a full stop faster than the 80-400mm, but attach a teleconverter to get to 420mm and it becomes an F5.6.  Advantage - Toss up

AF Speed – In my tests, I really didn’t notice any significant difference in AF speed. Advantage - Toss up

Size – The 300mm lens + TC is a smaller package than the 80-400mm. Advantage – 300mm combo.

Vibration Reduction – To me, this is a critical failing of the 300mm combo and why the 300mm F4 desperately needs updated. The zoom features a modern VR system and from my experience with wildlife, this is a must have. Advantage – Zoom.

Flexibility – You just can’t beat the 80-400mm in this department. If you’re photographing a critter and he moves in closer, you can quickly adjust your zoom in less time than it took you to read this sentence. With the 300mm, you’re messing around with TCs and you’ll miss shots (I speak from experience :) )  Advantage – Zoom.

So, there you are. Which option is best for you is something only you can decide. I can tell you that for my intended use for this focal length of lens (shooting from cars and kayaks), the zoom lens wins a spot in my bag, largely due to VR. Your mileage may vary.



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15 Responses to Nikon 80-400 Vs 300mm vs 70-200mm + TCs

  1. Paul Grecian says:

    Thanks for the test, well done! I think at 400mm the zoom does very well. I am still interested in how it does with the TC1.4 though at say a print size of 11×14 and maybe even stopped down one stop (f11 equiv.) Any additional insight would be much appreciated…Paul

  2. Paul Sandberg says:

    HI -
    Just got the pc20eiii yesteday- Put it on 800 + 80- 400 – I am having bad results – It will not lock in focusing – From what I am reading here – I seems that you are doing OK with the focus – I haven’t spent any amount of time working with it yet, and will – Any help or sugesstions would be appreciated -
    Thanks, Paul

    • Steve says:

      Hi Paul –

      You can only use the 1.4TC with it, the 2X drops it to an effective F11, a full stop past what even the newest Nikon bodies can focus with (newer Nikons can AF with an effective F8, older bodies an effective F5.6)

    • Phillipa Alexander says:

      Good article thanks Steve.
      Paul – I have recently tried using the 2x with the 80-400mm G – even though it is manual focus at 400mm I am finding it focuses manually very well and am quite surprised at how good the quality is – I have a shot at http://500px.com/photo/35256502 which was hand held manual focus in fairly low light – I was not expecting this and really ordered the 2x for the 300mm f/2.8. I am also finding it will auto-focus on the 80-400mm G up to about f/9 zoomed in to about 300mm which is interesting since it’s only supposed to auto-focus up to f/8.
      Phillipa

  3. Paul Sandberg says:

    Hi -
    Befor I purchased it – I called twice to Nikon, and they assured me that it was a good set-up -I live in Heatherdowns-
    Thanks – Paul

  4. Dennis Ng says:

    I am sort of thinking about MFD which you have not mentioned. May I ask your opinion as I was told the 300 F4 is good at short distance shoot.

    • Steve says:

      Hi Dennis –

      For very short distances, the 300mm is a better choice. It focuses closer and gives you a much tighter crop on your subject. Additionally, it doesn’t exhibit any “focus breathing” – the 80-400 is not 400mm at minimum focus distance.

  5. Jorge Rivera says:

    Great comparison!, it’s just the comparison i was looking for. Compared to the 70-200 without TC, what lense has the faster AF?, the AF speed of the 70-200 is great, could you compare it with the new 80-400 AF speed?. Thanks for the comparison, it helps me a lot!

    • Steve says:

      Hi Jorge –

      Thanks for the kind words. As for AF speed, it does seem like the 70-200 VRII without TC is faster. Don’t get me wrong, the new 80-400 AF is fast – I can’t imagine a situation where it would be too slow – but the 70-200 has always been just crazy quick (the F2.8 helps a bit no doubt). Slap a TC – even a 1.4 – on the 70-200 and then the nod goes to to the 80-400. Hope that helps :)

  6. François Lambelin says:

    Excellent test qui confirme mes propres impressions…j’aurais également aimé une comparaison entre le 80/400vr nikon et le sigma 50/500 os HSM….
    Sorry for m’y French but m’y English is too much poor…

  7. francois Lambelin says:

    it would be very interesting to compare 80×400 vr with 200×400 vr…
    many thanks

    • Paul Click says:

      With the wildlife shooting I do, I pretty much leave my 200-400 wide open all the time, looking for shutter speed at dawn and dusk. It is crazy sharp wide open, so I imagine, even though I have not shot the new 80-400, that it would win this contest quite easily. Even more if you stopped to down to 5.6.

  8. Dan Williams says:

    Hi Steve-

    As a frustrated birder (using the 70-300VR) on a retirees somewhat limited budget, I had been waiting for this 80-400 upgrade (or a significant price drop on the 500mm!) for some time. It’s announcement with the accompanying sticker shock kinda tempered my excitement but good specs and reviews kept me, at least, on the fence. Since my mobility is somewhat limited, I need the ability to frame my photos in camera instead of scampering back and forth to compose the shot. And then the photos need to be sharp enough to withstand a final cropping. Given these criteria, my options seemed to be limited to telezooms, namely the 70-200 2.8 with teleconverter or the 80-400. Your excellent review/comparison of the two lenses is just what I needed to nudge me off that fence and back into field. Based on your tests, The 80-400 not only won the war but won the battles that counted the most(sharpness and flexibility). Thank you for a job well done.

  9. Steve Griffin says:

    Thanks for the great comparison review Steve.

    I have a couple of D800E’s, a Pentax K-5 and K-01. I’ve only been shooting Nikon for a year now but have used Pentax since the 70′s.

    I use the AF-S 300 F4 with the TC-14E II and suffer the same need for VR that everyone is asking. What irks me the most about this is I sold a fantastic Pentax FA*300 f4.5 that was stabilized by the body of the Pentax cameras I own to help finance my Nikon kit. A Pentax DA*300 F4 is a cheaper,lighter and sharper lens than the AF-S 300 F4 and is also weather proof and stabilized by the Pentax body. The cost of that lens and a current K-5II would come in a touch above the Nikon 300mm lens alone but would be stabilized. On top of that, the Pentax DA*60-250 F4 zoom is a great lens that is equivalent to a 90-375mm (80-400 anyone?)FF lens and that is stabilized by the body as all lenses are.
    I don’t understand why people aren’t thinking outside the box (brand) here and looking elsewhere. I am thinking that if I don’t find an affordable solution to this issue, given that I’m leaning toward an APS-C format for Telephoto work anyway, that I’ll just sell the AF-S 300 F4 and buy a DA*300 for my K-5.

    I was reading the posts and thought I’d offer another perspective worth considering.

    For those thinking that I might be a Troll:
    My Nikon Kit
    2x D800E
    Zeiss 21 f/2.8
    Nikkor 35/1.4G
    Sigma 50mm F/1.4
    Sigma 85/1.4
    Sigma 150 F/2.8 OS Macro
    Nikkor 70-200 F2.8 VR II
    Nikkor AF-S 300 F4
    TC-14E II

    All I have left of my previously extensive Pentax rig is
    K-5
    K-01
    FA 31mm F1.8 Limited
    FA 77 f1.8 Limited
    DA* 55mm F1.4
    DA*200mm F2.8

    Unfortunately I sold a few lenses I now wish that I’d kept. The grass seems to be greener, but only in patches.

    Cheers.

  10. Kevin (Frogfish) says:

    Excellent review Steve P. !

    Steve Griffin : I also had Pentax before switching to Nikon (as the birding lens options are just not there unless you buy non-current lenses or the ridiculously priced 560mm). I was using the K5/DA*300/AFA x1.7 for 510mm (I don’t count the crop factor because it’s irrelevant when comparing to my current kit of D800E/300 2.8 VRII / TC14EII & TC20EIII). Pixels on bird is virtually the same.

    IMHO the IQ and AF speed, to say nothing of the far better cropping and low noise of the D800 (or the E) beats out the Pentax kit quite easily – there is no way I’d go back to Pentax for birding (though I really miss the 77mm and 43mm) ! The best birding lens for the K5 is the Sigma 500/4.5 (I also tried this one on the D800E but it’s now up for sale). The 60-250 has slower AF than the 300 and really isn’t a birding option (or at least no-one on the Pentax forums I inhabited was using it as an option), wonderful lens though it certainly is.

    The 80-400 will be going in the bag next week to ensure I have a lens that meets my needs when vacationing with my wife and it becomes unfeasible to carry the 300/2.8 & TCs. It will be replacing the Sigma 120-300/2.8 and x2 TC, also a really really nice set-up for traveling (but the 300mm & TCs has better IQ when just birding), as the 80-400 is only half the weight (1.5kgs to 3.0kgs) and doesn’t give up much in sharpness even when matched to the TC14EII. Quite a few options out there if you look around but this new 80-400 has to come close to the top of the pile.

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