Today we’re going to take an in-depth look at two of the best Nikon zoom lenses on the market, the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VRII professional grade lens, and the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED consumer grade lens. We’ll take a deep dive at the characteristics, specs, and builds of these two lenses. We’ll highlight all of the major differences and similarities, and provide you with insightful information to help make an informed decision when considering the purchase of one of these amazing lenses.
Comparison by Features
While these lenses share a lot of similarities, some subtle differences will have a big impact on your photography. We’re going to break it down by main features and take a detailed look, one feature at a time.
The zoom range is in the name of the lenses, 200-400mm and 200-500mm, respectively. Naturally, there is a little more zoom range in the 200-500mm lens.
Both lenses are compatible with Nikon AF-S teleconverters (except for the 1.25x converter) for situations when even more zoom is required.
The 200-400mm lens does maintain autofocus capabilities, with some limitations, across the entire scale, from 1.4x to 2x.
The 200-500mm lens has some autofocus limitations with the 1.4x teleconverters and loses all autofocus functions for anything beyond.
It’s no secret that the aperture is a huge influencer when shopping for lenses. Both of these lenses come with round, 9-bladed diaphragms, which are crucial in providing smooth, even background blur. They also share the same minimum aperture at f/32. So where’s the difference? The maximum aperture.
The 200-500mm lens has a maximum aperture of f/5.6, which still allows for some decent low-light shooting.
However, the 200-400mm lens has a maximum aperture of f/4, which provides even more flexibility in low-light scenarios. The larger aperture of the 200-400mm lens also allows for more accurate autofocusing in lower-light settings.
The 200-500mm does come with an electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism (as opposed to conventional mechanical linkage levers), which boasts more accurate aperture blade control when utilizing auto exposure during continuous shooting modes.
Both of these lenses come equipped with Nikon’s silent-wave motor autofocusing technology. This technology is renowned for quick and accurate autofocusing.
Both lenses allow for full-time manual focusing, as well as an “M/A” mode, which allows for autofocusing with quick manual overriding by turning the focusing ring.
The 200-400mm does come equipped with an additional focusing mode “A/M”, which stands for auto-priority manual mode. Similar to the “M/A” focus mode, except it requires the further turning of the focus ring to override the autofocus mode. This helps prevent any accidental switching into manual focusing mode.
Both lenses also operated with internal focusing, which means that the physical lens size won’t change during auto-focusing operations, which supports a more lightweight and compact design with closer focusing distances.
The 200-400mm does offer a bit closer shooting with a minimum focusing distance of 6.4ft, versus the 200-500, with a minimum focusing distance of 7.2ft. Not a huge difference, but something to consider, depending on the type of photography that you’re after.
While both of these lenses do come equipped with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction stability technology, you’ll notice that the 200-400mm lens has a VRII designation at the end of its name, meaning it has the second iteration of this technology. While the original VR system was robust, the VRII system does come with some added benefits.
The VRII zooming mechanism eliminated some movement that was prevalent in the original VR system, which keeps the lens from getting out of its zoom position.
The Nikon VRII also compensates for stabilization at four stops, as opposed to the three in the VR system. Overall, image stabilization is much greater in the VRII system, which is a huge influencing factor on the bigger price tag associated with a 200-400mm lens.
These lenses definitely share some similarities in their builds. They’re both built with Nikon’s Extra-Low Dispersion glass in conjunction with normal optical glass to correct chromatic aberrations.
The 200-500mm lens comes with three of these “ED” elements, while the 200-400mm lens contains one additional element, for a total of 4.
Both of these lenses also come with a coating to help improve image quality. The 200-500mm lens comes equipped with Nikon’s “Super Integrated Coating”, while the 200-400mm lens is coated with Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating, which is an upgrade over the Super Integrated Coating.
While both coatings are adequate, the Nano Crystal Coating definitely does a better job at eliminating ghosting and flares and creates more clear and higher-contrast images.
In terms of weight and size, the 200-500mm lens may have an advantage. The 200-400mm lens weighs in at 118.5 oz, with a footprint of 4.9 x 14.4 inches, as opposed to the 200-500mm lens, which comes in at only 81.2 oz., and is slightly smaller at 4.2 x 10.5 inches.
Both lenses do have tripod mounts and are ergonomically sound. Large manual focus rings make it easy to control focusing, and convenient switches are strategically positioned for quick switching of focus modes.
At the end of the day, both lenses are capable of producing high contrast, sharp, and clear images. The 200-400mm lens does have a bit more robust technology, and a larger maximum aperture, which is better for low-lighting scenarios.
The superior coating, and additional extra-low dispersion element, of the 200-400mm lens also provides for more minimal chromatic aberrations.
The technology that the 200-400mm lens is built on accounts for its much higher price point (around $7,000), compared to the 200-500mm (around $1,100).
When it comes to telephoto lenses, they’re highly sought after for wildlife and sports photography. The nature of these types of shooting often requires the ability to capture distant subjects.
So, which is better for which? The truth is, they’re both fantastically suited for either application.
As we mentioned, the 200-400mm lens does have that larger max aperture, and much more robust technology, which is going to allow it to produce an even higher quality image than the 200-500mm lens. Especially when lighting is less than ideal, as is often the case with sports and wildlife photography.
Of course, you may be willing to trade some of those benefits for the lower price point and the more compact and lightweight design of the 200-500mm lens.
When hauling your gear out for a shoot, the extra 2 pounds of weight that comes with the 200-400mm lens might be a big influence.
Ultimately, these lenses are both great options. Below is a quick reference chart for you to compare all of the features and specs that have been covered in this article. If you’re choosing between these two lenses, then there definitely isn’t a bad choice to be made. It will definitely boil down to personal preference.