One lens I used a lot through the years was my Nikon 200-400mm F4. This focal range hit the mark for so many images, and I could always add a 1.4x converter if I needed to go longer. But I sold that lens years ago when I bought a 300mm F2.8 and 500mm F4. Plain and simple primes were always sharper than zoom lenses (back then). I used my 300mm F2.8 all the time, and my 500mm F4 was my go to long lens. But then I evolved into the 600mm F4 as my main wildlife lens, and sold all my long primes except the 600mm F4. The Nikon 500mm PF F5.6 was a great second long lens, and very portable.
Covid has kept us at home most of this year, and that resulted into something new; daily backyard bird photography. Cree and I start almost every morning photographing birds on our feeders. But I soon realized we might need a second long fast telephoto since we had two blinds. The 500mm PF F5.6 worked great, except we wanted softer backgrounds (shallow depth of field), and one stop faster made a big difference trying to focus at first light. So I started thinking hard what second lens might work well for us. We tried a 120-300mm F2.8, which was incredible, except just too short for most of our wildlife photography. I thought about a 400mm F2.8, but that is one big lens and I knew we would want more than 400mm on many images. And then it hit me; I needed to return to my original favorite, the 200-400mm, except the new version was 180-400mm, and it had a built in teleconverter.
This is one of Nikon’s newest telephotos, using the latest lens technology, and you pay for it. But I had some older Nikon lenses I wasn’t using which 180-400mm would cover, so I dove in. It was one of the best lens buying decisions I have ever made. First is the size. This lens is 7.7 pounds, almost a pound lighter than my 600mm, and noticeably smaller and more compact. It feels like a 200-500mm but a little heavier. Next is the build quality. The lens is internal with focus and zoom, so no rain or dust is getting pulled back into the lens during use. This lens feels like a tank. To zoom through the 180-400mm only takes a small turn of the zoom ring, no need to be double jointed in the wrist to do full zoom ring rotations to zoom in and out.
Where this lens really shines is versatility. First, the standard zoom range is 180-400mm at F4, a perfect range for many wildlife shots. How often do the bears come close, or the lion pride walk past your Land Rover? All you do is zoom out, no need to switch lenses. And then there is the built in 1.4x converter. This is a brilliant idea. Anyone who has shot in dusty conditions knows swapping a converter on and off allows a lot of dust onto the sensor. Nikon smartly put the converter switch on the right side of the lens, so you can very quickly flip the converter on from the hand on your camera. Being internal, dust isn’t an issue. Using the converter gets you a 560mm F5.6, great for long lens shooting.
Of course, nothing really matters if the lens isn’t sharp. And what about using the converter, won’t acuity suffer? I can tell right now after shooting thousands of images using this lens that at 180-400mm it is sharp as any prime lens I’ve ever used…throughout its zoom range. And at 560mm with the converter it is still incredibly sharp, only pixel peepers are going to notice a difference. I was really concerned using the converter might lower the image quality, but I can say we shoot this lens at 560mm probably 75 percent of the time and the images look tack sharp. Autofocus is snappy and lightning fast from 180-400mm, with just a slight decrease using the converter due to losing one stop of light. We shoot this lens with a D6, and performance is stellar.
With so much focus on mirrorless development right now, buying an expensive DSLR lens gave pause. But this lens will transcend DSLR and mirrorless; I would just use my FTZ adapter on a mirrorless body. This lens is so versatile, and so incredibly sharp, we are going to be using it for many years with DSLR and mirrorless cameras. You pay a big price, but you reap big benefits. And if you spend every morning photographing birds in your backyard, justifying it isn’t an issue. One tack sharp mountain chickadee and you’re sold!