Update 2017: My new 600mm FL ED lens that I had been waiting on arrived and with that arrival I have the ability to do true comparisons of the Nikkor 400mm ED FL and the Nikkor 600mm ED FL, I don't own the 500, but I will include it because it is very similar to the 600mm in overall performance. This review will continue as an update over time as I shoot and gain more experience with the 600mm. As you know, I have been using the new FL 400mm for well over a year and simply love it, and has been a mainstay for the last 2 years in my nature photography work. In 2017 I will focus on the 600mm FL to find out what the new 600 can do.
With both lenses at my disposal, I am updating this article to include the newest information about the 600mm. As stated, I don't have much to offer here on the 500mm - the 500 is an excellent superlens, I just don't have a copy of it. Based on my experience it would be very comparable to the 600mm.
Since my first posting, many readers sent questions about 400 vs 600, which is better or which one to buy. So, I find it fitting this article should include both as part of this review. Reviews sometimes only cover the specific item, here I make comparisons to help people make choices. Hopefully, this will help you filter the content you need to make your decision on your major photographic purchase. Below are my thoughts based on my real world experience concerning the Nikkor 600mm f/4, the Nikkor 400mm F2.8 and some 3rd hand talk about the 500mm f/4.
At the bottom of this article in the "Photographers Notes" Section, I will offer some very fine alternatives for those who are budget conciseness, there are 80% solutions costing thousands less.
Background history, I own a 400mm ED FL, as well as the 600mm ED FL Nikkor. and for a long time a user of older versions of the 400mm & 600mm so I have a slight bias to these lenses for a few reasons. Both the older Nikkor 600mm F/4 and the older 400 were a pain in the neck due to weight. Nikon has updated their super telephotos using FL ED to reduced weight and some new coatings, along with better VR - Technically speaking these lenses are very similar in makeup, length, and weight, with the 600 being just a few ounces heavier and longer.
Price Tags: Prices have dropped a few hundred but these top-end lenses remain expensive. The different prices are between $1,100.00 to $1,300.00 at the lowest price point. The 500mm starts at $10,300.00. You need to do some real soul searching if you willing to spend this much on a lens unless of course, you're making a living from your camera. I did notice some price fluctuations in the downward trend of a few hundred drop over time - maybe the trend will continue.
Nikon did some serious weight reduction on these lenses, The 500mm is just a tad over 6.3 pounds while the 600mm is just at 8.4 pounds and the 400mm weighing in at 8.3 pounds. As you can see the 500mm is the lighter of them, so for some this with the price may be the best choice for many. Had the 500mm been released first my choices may have been different.
Benefits of using a 400mm f2.8: The FL and ED version 400 is a spooky sharp fast lens, with sharpness almost at the macro performance level. but you already know that, and it is known the 400 resolves better than a 600, ever so slightly, but in reality who counts pixels between these lenses anyway? When shown two photos I pick the one that best tells the story, sharpness counts but not to the degree most rank that as a deciding factor; many things affect sharpness not just the optics, yes you want the best optics and I agree, these lenses have minimal sharpness differences.
Comment: if you are trying to make a 400 into a 600 with TCs you may be best served just getting yourself a 600, we will cover this in a minute. While I can not speak to the 500mm as I do not have one to use. In my opinion, you are not buying any of these lenses because one is sharper than the other, You buy because you have an objective and goals and want a lens that will best suit your requirements.
What makes the 400mm such a delight to use? The 400mm 2.8 lens simply works best with ALL the Nikkor Teleconverters with ease when needing extra reach. The 400 has a large 2.8 starting aperture giving it a big advantage with today's current cameras autofocus capabilities. Some images (shown below) were taken with the TC1.7, making the 400mm a 680mm, f4.76 that are simply amazing, and I also use the TC2.0 giving me 800mm 5.6 with very good results, Also to note is when using this 400mm with the new 1.4 III TC you absolutely do not know the TC is on the lens - rocket fast focus acquisitions (more of a camera thing) the 400mm has greater light gathering, a key factor and with the TC 1.4 combo you have a 560mm f3.9 lens close to the native 600mm f/4. and guess what - you will not be able to tell the differences in sharpness or images on screen if you compared one taken with a 400mm with TC 1.4 or a native 600mm, sure the 400 will render slightly smaller images on the sensor, but not by much.
What Makes the 600mm such a delight to use? You don't need a 1.4 TC to be out to 600mm - you have it with a naked lens on the camera body. When you do the math 400 x vs 600 x multiplication with a 1.4 you soon realize the big advantage of a 600mm: That combo gives you 840mm while the 400 X 1.4 will provide 560mm. Big Difference.
Thet 600mm works very well with a 1.7 TC in good lighting conditions, with a TC 1.7 you have a 1020mm vs 680mm as opposed to the 400mm lens 1,7 combo. See the chart below as a quick reference, With a 600mm and using any TC you will quickly outpace the 400mm in reach, and that is the main reason this lens is such a delight to use - focal length.
The downside to the 600mm F/4 is focus acquisition is a bit iffy using a 2.0 TC in anything but bright lighting unless you are good at manual focusing. While the 400mm works fine, you do notice a performance drop when using the 2.0 TC, just remember your 400mm starts at f/2.8 nor f/4. When using the 1.7 TC with the 600mm I did notice a slightly slower focus acquisition with an occasional hunt. As compared to the 400, the 600 seems to prefer focusing on the distant ground while the 400 will focus on the point I selected. Once you become accustomed to the 600mm's focus habits you can get around the challenge, by using a pre-focus button or simply focusing on another object close to your subject. I will be doing some testing with the TC 2.0 and 600mm combo shortly. The problem is with a 600mm & TC20 you're racked out to 1200mm @ F/8 - pushing this to the edge of what current cameras can reliably focus. I found it is usable, but I needed to do more planning and focus assist.
So what makes the 600mm such a delight to use - REACH! plain and simple.
While we are on the TCs topic, using the 2.0 on my 400mm gives me great results in most cases, and in some situations spectacular results. This 400 with TC 2.0 combo takes me to 800mm f/5.6 with shot after shot of usable and in focus images. One thing I never worry about with the 400 is am I obtaining enough detail when using any of the TC's Nikon makes. and this is mainly why we have discussions about which to choose. but let us face it. a 600 with a 1.4 is well beyond the 400mm's reach and the 600mm works better with a 1.4 TC than a 400mm with a 2.0 TC. and both will be at around 800mm f/5.6.
But, if you remove the TCs the 400mm will do much better in lower light situations for obvious reasons. I would err on the side of carrying a 400mm vs a 600mm to a night game, even though I would acquire smaller images, I believe I would have more in focus images overall at the end of the night.
One final note on Sharpness: The 400mm lens may be the sharpest lens I have ever owned. With this lens, I found myself not realizing this, but caught myself assuming I had applied some sharpening - the lens is just sharp- spooky sharp.
In the months to follow I will evaluate the 600mm and see if I have the same sense of tack sharp images shot after shot as I do the 400mm. Time will tell - stay tuned.
Here is an example of fine detail of images even when using a TC 1.7 attached: Most people don't consider images such as this when shooting a super tele. A Larger image is in the main gallery and neither is a full crop.
Other benefits: Some may not think about, the native 400mm length at times is a great length - yep sometimes you need a shorter super tele length and this 400 is a great sideline lens for game night with the fast 2.8 f-stops it is a killer lens. With the 600mm f/4, you will need to crank up the ISO a bit more while shooting in the stadium lighting and all things being equal here.
Portability: They are big lenses no doubt. To compare them against each other I don't feel that would make me pick one over the other, as the lightest is the 500 saving you 2 pounds of carrying weight. We now know the 400mm makes for a great 680mm f4.7 lens, but if you're out in 90-degree heat and humidity who cares if it is 6 or 8-pound lens, we do it cause we love it!! The weight we carry is a demonstration of our dedication to photography - in all seriousness, you can have a wonderful super system at 2 lbs lighter by going with the FL 500mm, but I would not let weight alone make my purchase decision for me.
Can you say the best Bokeh EVER? You can get good Bokeh with a 600mm But with a 400mm 2.8, you get amazing bokeh wide open with sharpness and clarity bar none for any Nikon lens I know of. This combination makes your subject snap out from the background. The 400 makes for one fine head and shoulder portraiture lens, and with the splendid Bokeh, you simply have winning photos each and every time. Using the 600 you get super results as well, but it is 600 f/4 not 400 f/28 so, no doubt the 400 rules this area. But the 600mm f/4 is no slouch either.
The titan of the bunch is the larger and longer 600mm - You will look more impressive in the field, to say the least. The clear lightweight shorty is the 400mm lens.
Weather We Not Worry: I know for a fact the 400mm is well protected against the elements. Being caught out in a light rain all came out perfect with no problems and now the 600mm and 500mm share the same great Nikon Weather Seal design in addition to a super slick front lens coating - fluorine. Water and muck jump off the glass. All three lens weather equally well - pun intended, and I have first-hand experience with both the 400 and 600 In rain and dust.
VR and other Electronic Features: All three feature the same Nikon technology, VR is stated to give you 4 stops. I can attest it works extremely well, on both the 600 and 400. But I do think the 400mm is a bit nosier in the operation.
So, what about that 600 we were trying to compare? Most people who are in the market for a super telephoto are looking for one main thing, the longest fastest lens they can get their hands on. If you take a look at the 500mm price tag you will see it is less expensive than the other two lenses by up to 2K, not because it is a less of a champion - because it is a 500 and not a 600 and an f4 and not a 2.8. = less of a demand and less versatile. Thus most folks will consider the 600mm vice a 500mm unless that $$ is stopping them.
Below was a shot was taken with the 400 just as it was meant to be with no TCs - the NEF file is super hair counting sharp, and the subject filled the frame with little or no cropping. The point here is not that the 400 is better but each lens has a sweet spot and makes you giddy when everything comes together to deliver a great frame filling image.
| Here is one of those rare situations
I was set up standing there when I heard something across the way
This fox walks out of the brush takes a look left and right
I was in camo this day - He did not see me until I had a few shots
Had I been using a longer lens - the composition would be off
The 600mm f/4 in a NutShell: Shooting at a native 600mm in many ways has simplistic benefits, first nothing extra to mount between camera and lens - "but I do not know any 600 shooters who do not own at least one TC usually the 1.4., the thing is you could go naked all day with the NIKKOR 600mm f/4 and get wonderfully frame filling sharp images right out of box, and taking less is sometimes better. Please, everyone factor in that the prime focal lengths are 200mm different, thus adding one TC on a 600 will best the 400 on any good day in reach. Consider the 400mm the sprinter while the 600 being the long distance runner both being fine athletes, and each best suited for their course.
The 600mm lens is super sharp monster as most Nikon Supers are, and no one has ever said otherwise of the 600 lens - or at least I can not find anyone saying so. To tell the truth at this range of sharpness one is hard-pressed to make distinct differences on published images anyway, as I stated before - sharpness differences is not what brings us here.
A pair of Eagles just before laying the eggs, harsh back-light conditions.
When I used the 600mm in the field it is fast and accurate on both focus and sharpness using the TC 1.4 III, making for an 840mm @ f/5.6 and you simply can not get that from a 400 on any good day. Also, you could use the 1.7 TC giving you a 1020mm @ f/6.8 and this may be the place where folks make their decision. EVERYONE I know in the field of wildlife, especially birders wants the longest lens they can afford and carry. The 600 although is not the most versatile but commands respect on it's longer capabilities it is able to muster when the need arises to bring to the sensor a frame filler... TCs once again They work best as you know, in bright contrast, uncluttered backgrounds.
Just as I mentioned about you can't make a 600 shorter, you certainly can't get a 400 much past 800mm while the 600 is fully capable of doing so with a TC 1.4. This is that fork in the road where we need to take the Longer or general versatility paths?
TC Factors for each lens. - If you look at these and have an objective of a longer reach the choice is clear.
| Lens Focal
| 400mm f2.8
|| 560mm f/3.9
| 500mm f/4
|| *1000mm f/8
| 600mm f/4
|| 840mm f/5.6
|You see in comparison and realize both the 500 and 600 have a clear advantage on reach.
When using a TC 1.4 on a 600mm you are well beyond the 400mm capabilities
For those who need "reach" and you know who you are, the Nikkor 600mm wins out
* Only the newest Nikon cameras are able to autofocus at F/8 so I don't believe
you will have 100% dependability overall.
Teleconverters: The Truth, they work well!! Period. Anyone telling you not to use them may need a reality check. Here are my thoughts. As stated the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 works extremely well with all three teleconverters. The 600 and 500mm f/4 work extremely well with the 1.4, works well with the TC 1.7 In good lighting and a recent DSLR works well with the 2.0. All work extremely well in manual focus, with high contrast and sharpness. I do not hesitate to use any Teleconverter WITHOUT worries of fuzzy images. I highly recommend you have a couple anyway - your choice., me personally I have all.
| TC 14 III
Nikon list these Teleconvertors as "compatible" with the lens mentioned - they are! But, the 600 and 2.0 TC combo work OK together but not outstanding out there in the field in less than ideal situations.
Keep in mind beyond 600mm you really do need to pay attention to fast exposures and stable platforms to maximize image quality; I carry my 400 and 600 on a Gitzo systematic 3 series and that is minimally usable with the 1.7 tc. the least bit of vibrations can wreck an image and vibrations manifest themselves with longer focal lengths and smaller crop sensor body cameras.
In conclusion and my opinion: If you are considering one of these lens and will be a primary nature bird shooter - I would go with a 600mm or the 500mm. If you find that you are in need of the long-range shots, from distance or live in an area with those wide open vistas between you and your subject - get yourself a 600mm or even 800mm. - you will not be disappointed and it will certainly give you years of great use. If you are a metropolitan shooter as I am, and find yourself more often than not in wildlife areas and local areas that may put you closer to your subject without the large claws or teeth, or you like shooting sports then the 400 is a clear winner in function and versatility.
If you ever have the opportunity to twist one of these lenses onto your camera body and use them for a month, you will know the 400 outperforms the other two but when it comes to reaching the 400 takes the back seat
If I had to give up my 400mm or 600mm which one would I keep? I would keep the 400 because it is more flexible and without a teleconverter very fast with superior low-light performance.
I have been in situations many many times I wished I had my 600 on the end of my camera - because the subject was just too far from my focal reach using a 400mm and yet there are photos taken with this 400 that a 600 could never achieve. This year, I picked up my new 600 FL and now am out shooting with it on a regular basis- see my 600mm post for images.
Regardless - you get stellar results from any of the three lens mentioned.
On The Trail
Out waiting on the elusive Pileated Woodpecker to show up.
Finally, Make YOUR decision based on your needs then enjoy your lens and maximize what it brings to you and share your work. I talk with people on the trail when our paths meet and share my hot spots and conversations on photography, rarely the lens we carry is a topic. I was out recently and meet someone very excited about her recent images and shared her experiences with me, this is exactly what makes everyone special in Photography - the common bond we all share in doing what we do and not about the brand or what we can afford, it is our passion & who we are. I will see you on the Trail.
The 80% Solution for Nature & Birding without breaking your bank.
1. Buy used gear! Amazing selection, last year's glass can be found at 1/2 the cost normally.
2. If you are a Nikon user buy a Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, amazing lens and is reasonably priced!
3. Pick up a Nikon 300mm F/4 ED PF version. My God is it light and compact with extreme sharpness and can accept a 1.7 TC, Perfect combo for walking the trail. I carry this lens TC combo when I need a break and have never been disappointed by what I bring home.
4. If you are a Canon user pickup a 100-400, superb optics and it accepts a TC as well - you can not go wrong.
5. Hear This! Sigma has been kicking serious butt by making some great zooms and primes that cover out to 600mm, I prefer Sigma as a 3rd party lens maker. I owned a Sigma 120-300 and was very pleased with it.
6. To the point above, Sigma just updated the 500mm f/4 as a new sports lens, not exactly cheap, but almost 1/2 the cost of Nikon Glass. Although I have not used the Sigma, I am hearing good things about it.
7. What ever your approach - get going with a nice lens and see if your interest is in nature photography.
- Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 ED FL VR
- Nikkor 600mm f/4 FL ED VR
- TC-14E III
- TC-17 II
- TC-20 III