Longer vs Faster vs Lighter
This Article Updated September 2020: If you are reading this article chances are you are trying to decide which of the Nikon Super Telephoto lenses would be the best choice for your photography. The Nikon 600mm F/4 ED FL reins are superior with no equal in the lens market for 600mm. This is the lens you want for bird photography - period. Nikon is an Optics company and Nikon Makes superior optics whose designs are copied by other companies. Do the math, Nikon is your superior optics company.
This depends on your camera body and budget, assuming you are shooting a more recent Nikon DSLR or Mirrorless then your camera can focus with an f/8 lens – this applies to the 2.0 Teleconverter attached to the 600mm lens, making the 600 a 1200mm f/8, I rarely use the TC 2X combination with the 600.
Bottom Line Up Front in case you do not wish to read the entire article: My top lens for birding with good lighting is the Nikkor 600mm f/4 ED FL. Why? Because bird photography requires a long focal length to help fill the frame, and the Nikon 600mm can easily accept the 1.4 TC making it an 840mm lens. My second choice is the Nikkor 500mm f/4 lighter, also a good focal length for birds, and also easily accepts the 1.4 TC making it a great 700mm lens. The newest 500mm f5.6 is simply an excellent lightweight easy to carry and produces super sharp images, the pitfall of the 500 pf lens - it needs more light and does not do well with TCs above 1.4x. The 500mm PF lens strongest point is you can actually hand carry this lens and still have enough strength to drive home at the end of the day of shooting :)
My top lens for indoor sports photography, overcast days, bird photography in the undergrowth (poor light) is the Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 ED FL. Why? The Nikon 400mm is a very flexible lens accepting all the Nikon Teleconverters while retaining good focus speed and fast apertures. Even with the 2.0 TC, the aperture is f/5.6. making it almost equal to the 600mm with a 1.4 TC. The hands-down BOKEH king is the 400mm for super telephotos – making it an excellent head and shoulders portrait lens as well.
My top lens for travel is a toss-up between the Nikkor 500mm f/4 ED FL or the Nikkor 500mm ED PF F/5.6. The 500mm f/5.6 PF is the king of portability in a super-telephoto package, compact and weighing in at a mere 3.2 pounds makes this lens an excellent choice for traveling to locations via airplanes. The lower price point is also a deciding factor for this lens. Additionally, the Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 PF can actually be hand-carried – I use a two-point Black Rapid strap which makes using this lens almost effortless. With all the other Nikkor super-telephoto lenses I always use a tripod or monopod. The one downside as mentioned in the 500 PF lens is of course is the slower aperture of f/5.6. So, in situations I need a bit more aperture with a 1.4 TC it will be the 500mm f/4 hands down.
The optics of the three lenses mentions are exceptional – that is one thing you don’t need to consider is which is sharper - they are all equally super sharp.
Weather Resistance of the three lenses is exceptional – The Nikkor 400mm, 500mm f/4, and the 600mm while in my use were in downpours without issues. I have not shot the 500mm f/5.6 yet in rainy weather as of yet.
So which lens? You decide based on your photography needs. I started with a 400mm f/2.8 due to the flexibility, then picked up the 600mm f/4, and most recently purchased the 500mm F/5.6 PF for portability – some days you simply don’t want to deal with the weight and the 500m f/5.6 PF is the lens to reach for.
I hope this helps, and if you do decide on a lens via Amazon use my links below to help support the site. There is no additional cost to you, and I get a small referral commission. Thanks for visiting. Below is the original review.
With three lenses at my disposal, I have updated this article to include the newest information about the 600mm and 500mm f/5.6 PF both of which I have added to my superlens. As stated, I don't have much to offer here on the 500mm f/4 having only rented it for a few weeks in hopes that would help me decide on which lens to purchase - that move only made the decision more difficult. I can say the 500 f/4 is on the same performance level as the 600mm in a smaller lighter package - the 500 f/4 is an excellent super-telephoto lens, I just don't have a copy of it for long time use. Based on my experience it is very comparable to the 600mm except in weight.
Since my first posting, many readers have sent questions about 400 vs 600 vs 500mm, which is better or which one to buy. So, I find it fitting this article cover the specific lenses, here I make comparisons to help people make choices. Hopefully, this will help you filter the content you need to make your decision on a major photographic purchase. Below are my thoughts based on my real-world experience concerning the Nikkor 600mm f/4, the Nikkor 400mm F2.8, 500mm f/5.6 PF, and a rented 500mm f/4. Even if you are not a Nikon shooter, choosing between say a 400 vs 500/600mm lens is the same thought process.
At the bottom of this article in the "Photographers Notes" Section, I will offer some very fine alternatives for those who are more budget conciseness, offering 80% solutions costing thousands less.
Background history, I own a 400mm ED FL, the 600mm ED FL Nikkor, and a 500mm f/5.6 PF and a long-time 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 literally 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 and Phase Fresnel technology. Technically speaking these lenses are very similar in makeup, length, and weather sealing, with the 600 being just a few ounces heavier and longer and the 500mm f/5.6 being exceptionally light and portable.
Price Tags: Prices have dropped somewhat but these top-end lenses remain expensive. The different prices are between $4,000.00 to $12,300.00. The 500mm f/5.6 starts at $3,600.00. You need to do serious soul searching if you are willing to spend this much on a lens unless of course, you're making a living from your camera. Price fluctuations are based on the YEN and fluctuate over time - maybe the trend will continue downward.
|AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR
||VR, SWM, N, IF
|AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E ED PF VR
|| VR. SWM, N, IF
|AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
|| VR, SWM, N, IF
|AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
|| VR, SWM, N, IF
Nikon did serious weight reduction on all these lenses, but the 500mm /5.6 is at another level with just over 3 pounds while the 500mm is a tad over 6.3 pounds, the 600mm is at 8.4 pounds, and the 400mm weighing in at 8.3 pounds. As you can see the 500mm lenses are the lighter.
|Not the best example - Here Shows the buttery smooth bokeh and sharpness of the 400mm wide open
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. 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. Travel compact size = 500mm f/5.6, or the faster 500mm f/4, Flexible and super sharp = 400mm f/2.8, Focal Length = 600mm f/4.
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 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. The 400mm has greater light-gathering great for astrophotography, 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 do not tell the differences in sharpness or images on screen if you compared one taken with a 400mm native or with TC 1.4 or the 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.
Solitary Malard cruises along in the Marsh. Taken with a Nikon 600mm ED FL Lens
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 can be a bit iffy using a 2.0 TC in anything less than the brightest of lighting situations unless you are good at manual focusing. The 400mm works excellent in lower light with its faster aperture when using the 2.0 TC, just remember your 400mm starts at f/2.8, not 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 more testing with the TC 2.0 and 600mm combo this year. 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 this combo increases the chance of blurred photos due to the extreme focal length. Simply put you need a higher ISO to maintain the faster shutter at this focal length.
So what makes the 600mm such a delight to use - REACH! plain and simple. If you need reach this is the lens for you unless you need super reach an 800mm f/5.6 but I find that lens a bit too much.
So what makes the 400mm such a delight to use - Spooky Sharp, fast focus, flexible and a faster aperture.
So what makes the 500mm lenses a delight to use - lighter with excellent sharpness and weather protection. With the 500mm f/5.6 a more budget - travel-wise lens.
Purple water flower in marsh
A backlighted purple water flower in the marsh Taken with a Nikon 600mm ED FL Lens
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.
If you remove the TCs the 400mm will do much better in lower light situations for obvious reasons it is the fastest lens of the bunch. I would err on the side and carrying a 400mm vs a 600mm to a night game, even though I would acquire greater field of view 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 thinking I had applied some sharpening but did not - the lens is just sharp- spooky sharp.
| 400mm TC 1.7
||400mm TC 1.7 with slight crop
| This may be a situation where a 600 would have hit the sweet spot
Lighting was very poor due to the Eagle was sitting in tree shadow, post processing was needed
This is more of a camera dynamic range not a lens issue, in raw you have the ability to recover that.
Here I had 3 seconds to get a shot - turn an shoot.
I managed two shots before he took to wing, post-editing save it.
The lens simply help fills your chosen sensor
Here is an example of fine detail of images even when using a TC 2.0 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 great - yep sometimes you need a shorter super-telephoto 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 rack up the ISO a bit more while shooting in the stadium lighting with all other things being equal.
Portability: The 400, 600, and 500 f/4 are big lenses no doubt. To compare them against each other I don't feel that would make me pick one over the other. The 500 f/4 saving you 2 pounds of carrying weight while the 500 f/5.6 is the best travel/carry/cost-friendly lens of the bunch. We 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 a 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 3 lbs lighter by going with the 500mm, but I would not let weight alone make my purchase decision for me.
Can you say the best Bokeh EVER? You get good Bokeh with a 600mm but with a 400mm 2.8, you get amazing bokeh with excellent distance compression wide open and the sharpness and clarity bar none for any Nikon lens I know of. This combination makes your subject snap from the background. The 400 makes for one fine head and shoulder portraiture lens, and with the splendid Bokeh, you simply have winning photos every time. Using the 600 you get super results as well, but the 400 f/28 reins king, 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 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 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 that 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 the box, and taking less is sometimes better. Please, factor in that the prime focal lengths are 200mm different, thus adding a TC onto 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 a super sharp monster as all Nikon Super Telephoto lenses 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 are not what brings us here.
Man and his Best Friends out on a boat relaxing
A man with his three dogs goes out on the Potomac for some relaxation. Taken with a Nikon 600mm ED FL Lens
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 for its longer capabilities it can 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 / f/5.6
||850mm f/6.8 / **f/9.52
|| *1000mm f/8 / **f/12.2
| 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 can 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 wildlife 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 Teleconverters 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 atmospheric conditions (heat waves) degrades image quality, I had people complain that their images are not sharp and must be the lens, then I point out they are shooting over open fields in the summer. Secondly, if you go 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 teleconverters. the least bit of vibrations can wreck an image and vibrations manifest themselves with longer focal lengths and smaller crop sensor body cameras. If I had it to do over I would have bought the Series 4 Gitzo.
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 need 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.
A Nikon 600mm f/4 ED FL lens about to be skinned
The Maiden Voyage awaits this Nikon 600mm f/4 ED FL Lens
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 regularly- see my 600mm post for images.
Regardless - you get stellar results from any of the three lens mentioned.
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 cross and I share any known 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 she shared her experiences with me, this experience 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.