Many of us who photograph the landscape have always loved the idea of incorporating wildlife into our photographic practice. At the same time, wildlife is an intimidating photographic genre – big lenses that cost as much as a car, exacting focus requirements, incredibly heavy tripods, exotic locations. In the realm of the specialist, right? I’ve been doing quite a bit of bird (and other wildlife) photography this past year – with a variety of handholdable lenses that cost between $1000 and $3600, (some of them are even hikeable).
Wildlife images are among the most fun and rewarding things a nature-oriented photographer can do. For my tests of three of these lenses, I was lucky enough to be at the annual Snow Goose and Canada Goose migration at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Vermont. Whether or not you get great photographs, to be present for a migration like this is to be a part of nature in a way that few other things as simple to reach let you join. Especially in this crazy year, just standing there in this swirling, honking celebration of life reminded me why we are here.
Isn’t that a lot of what photography is about? Connecting with our subjects – whatever the subject might be – is one of the really rewarding things about being out there with a camera. Bird migrations are an amazing way to enter the world of wonder that exists on our doorsteps, and the camera is a tool to connect us with that world. It is beautiful and humbling to be present at a spectacle of nature – and you don’t have to go to the Kalahari to be a part of it. Many parts of the United States and the world have wildlife refuges that predictably offer great photography at different times of year. Sometimes it’s only during a migration, other times and places, some creature summers or winters on a refuge in great numbers or where you can get relatively close safely and without disturbing the animals. Wildlife photography is a great way to learn animal behavior.
If you’re new to wildlife photography, larger birds like geese or birds of prey can be easier subjects than trying to get images of warblers right off the bat. Another fun option is whale watches – whales are big, and they tend to be curious. Several species of large whales (and most dolphins) are outright show-offs, swimming right up to boats, seemingly because they are interested in meeting us. On the East Coast of the United States, there is a particular family of humpback whales who seem to enjoy people-watching. Many humpbacks will pretty much ignore boats, but members of this family, led by a matriarch whom biologists have named Salt, will often swim right over to say “hi”. I’m not sure there is any experience more beautiful than meeting a curious intelligence this alien to us, and who is interested in us.
Most professional mammal photos (other than whales) are taken at zoos and game farms, but there are exceptions. Small, common mammals can make great subjects – squirrels have wonderful expressions, and they’re all too happy to pose while raiding your bird feeder. Similarly, backyard feeder birds can be a lot of fun, and they offer opportunities to practice on small birds. Don’t forget the reptiles and amphibians – a grinning frog can be a great shot, and will be a particular hit with the kids in your life! If you live near a place where there are safe (for photographer and animal) opportunities to photograph large mammals, or if you travel to one, the deer and bear families are among the interesting possibilities.
Another key to wildlife photography is that an image of a group of animals, or an animal in its environment, is often more interesting than a straight portrait. A portrait of a coyote looks a LOT like a dog, but a coyote caught slinking out of the forest, head barely poking out from behind a tree, curious but wary, says a lot more about coyotes. One goose, unless it’s a spectacular shot, is a lot less interesting than a migratory V, or than proud parents with goslings. Whales are often very social with each other, especially the dolphin family, and their interactions are beautiful.
There are two technological developments that have made wildlife photography much more accessible. The first is that sensors have gotten so much better that high ISOs are a lot more usable than they used to be. All the lenses I’ve been using are at least a stop slower than the top-end exotics – the 300 and 400mm f2.8 and 500 and 600mm f4 optics that cost $5000 to $15000 and weigh seven to ten pounds. The less expensive options are more like two stops slower than the exotics. There are two implications to a slower lens – one is that you’re going to have to put the ISO up by a stop or two, and the other is that you aren’t going to have the same degree of subject isolation. The ISO just means that you are going to give up part of the gain in sensor performance that we’ve seen in the past few years – but you’ll still keep a lot of it and modern software-based noise reduction can give back some of the marginal loss. The best noise reduction software I’ve seen is DxO’s DeepPrime, but there are a wide range of options – some built into raw converters, while others are standalone products.
An interesting point to remember is that the noise performance of a modern full-frame digital sensor is at least FOUR STOPS better than any 35mm film. If I had the choice of printing from an ISO 1600 file from a modern pixel monster like the Sony A7rIV or Nikon Z7 or from any ISO 100 35mm film, I’d take the digital file hands down. Under essentially any circumstance I can think of, I could make a larger, sharper print with better color and contrast from the file! Plenty of wildlife photographers got great images using film, and it wasn’t always ISO 100.
We do have to be a little more careful with composition with slower lenses, especially when the subject and background are at very similar distances. One stop is a marginal difference, but two or more is significant. A 100-400mm f6.3 isn’t going to give the same degree of subject separation as a 400mm f2.8. A moose at the edge of a forest, where the confusing background is right there, isn’t going to be an ideal subject for an f6.3 lens – the big exotic will separate Bullwinkle from the background much better. On the other hand, the same moose feeding in a pond will work just fine with the f6.3 lens (which was far easier to get to the spot in a canoe).
There are a few lenses that give up more than two stops of subject separation to the exotics, and I haven’t personally tried them. Some are very small, light, affordable lenses (Canon’s new 600mm and 800mm f11 glass), while others are lenses for smaller-sensor cameras (Micro 4/3 in particular) that lose additional separation due to the depth of field effects of sensor size (although they also have longer effective focal lengths). An interesting example of this breed is Olympus’ new 150-400mm f4.5 zoom. Since it’s Micro 4/3, it’s a 300-800mm f9 equivalent in full-frame terms. At the wide end, it gives up 3 1/3 stops to the equivalent exotic primes (300 and 400mm f2.8 – but the wide end of telephoto zooms is almost always slow). Above 600mm, it’s only 1 1/3 stops slower than a very, very exotic 800mm f5.6. In the middle of its range, it is 2 1/3 stops slower than 500mm and 600mm f4 primes. The challenge is that, until you get into the nearly unique range above 600mm, it is also a stop or more slower than some much more affordable lenses – and the Olympus is NOT an affordable lens (it’s $7499).
Its closest competitor is Sony’s 200-600mm f5.6-6.3, which is 1 to 1 1 /3 stops faster throughout the focal range equivalence they share, is no slower with a 1.4x teleconverter on it to reach the longest end of the Olympus’ range, and works with cameras with much better sensors. Remember that the Sony is a “1200mm f13” by cropping to a Micro 4/3 size chunk of the A7rIV sensor (and you can choose which chunk to use). ¼ of the Sony sensor is a better performer than all of the Olympus sensor, because the Sony is two or three generations newer, which more than makes up for the difference in resolution. The real kicker – the Sony (an excellent performer I’ll talk about later in the article) is a $2000 lens – add $550 for the teleconverter to reach 800mm without cropping. I haven’t used the Olympus lens, but it would have to be a phenomenal performer to be worth three times what the Sony and its teleconverter cost, especially hamstrung with the Same Old Sensor. You could buy the Sony lens, the teleconverter, and an A7rIV to put it on, and STILL have $1000 or so left over for a standard-range lens for the Sony (how about a Sigma 24-70-mm f2.8?) Other than the very expensive 150-400mm, every other Micro 4/3 long telephoto is f11 or f13 equivalent at the long end of its range. Some of them ARE extremely compact, and offer by far the smallest way to long focal lengths other than long-zoom compact cameras that aren’t anywhere near the same image quality.
I have experimented with five long telephotos in the range that a serious enthusiast photographer might consider over the past year. Two are Nikon F-mount prime lenses that work beautifully on Z-mount mirrorless bodies using the FTZ Adapter. I tested them on a Z7, which is a perfect companion for these very compact lenses, which use Nikon’s Phase Fresnel technology . Two more are Sony FE lenses, tested on an A7rIV without adapter. The last lens is Sigma’s FE-mount 100-400mm f5-6.3 Contemporary, which is rumored to appear in Z-mount and Canon RF-mount versions soon (it already exists in L-mount as well as FE).
The Sigma lens is by far the cheapest of the group at $949, while the Nikon 500mm f5.6 PF is the most expensive at $3600. All three of the remaining lenses are clustered in the $2000-$2500 range. There are at least two more key lenses in this range that should be in this article, but that I don’t have experience with. One is Nikon’s $1400 200-500mm f5.6, a relatively inexpensive zoom option for Nikon. The other is Canon’s brand-new 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF. The most interesting aspect of this mirrorless-only lens is that it is the size and weight of a standard 100-400mm lens, while reaching 500mm. Apart from the Canon and Nikon’s 500mm f5.6 PF prime, anything beyond 400mm is in a notably different size and weight class from the usual 100-400mm lenses (close to or over 5 lb as opposed to 3 lb).
There are two classes of older lens designs that compete with these fairly new lenses (the oldest of this group is the Nikkor 300mm PF, released in 2015). The first is the classic 100-400mm DSLR lens. The Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM reviewed here is pretty much a DSLR-style lens, despite the mirrorless mount. Canon and Nikon both make similar lenses for DSLRs, both in their second generation (as do Fujifilm and Panasonic in crop-sensor mirrorless mounts). The Sigma 100-400 is a somewhat different sort of lens, notably cheaper and more compact than the classic 100-400s. The Sigma weighs 2.5 lbs, while the DSLR lenses are around 3.5 lbs – even Fujifilm’s APS-C lens is over 3 lbs. Despite its much smaller coverage, the Panasonic 100-400mm for Micro 4/3 is only slightly lighter than the full-frame Sigma lens.
The second group of competitive lenses is the relatively inexpensive, but often unwieldy, very long (long end at or beyond 500mm) zooms. Until the Nikkor 200-500mm appeared, these lenses were exclusively the province of 3rd party lens makers. Sigma, Tamron and others have produced many variations over the years, gradually incorporating image stabilization and improving image quality. These lenses share a couple of features – they are reasonably priced (around $1000), they are “trombone” zooms that physically extend by quite a bit at the long end of the zoom range, and they are not weather sealed – an important consideration for a wildlife lens. Some of the older versions were push-pull zooms, but the more recent ones have twist collars that still extend the lens by several inches. The zoom ring stays in the same place, but the front of the lens extends, often enormously Their image quality tends to decrease toward the long end of the zoom range (exactly where one would want to use a lens like this) The trombone design is a further drawback for a big lens that will be used in the field – the balance shifts as you zoom and the lens sucks in quite a bit of dust and air, some of which ends up on your sensor. Sigma’s $1800 150-600mm f5-6.3 Sports is a bit of an outlier in this class – while I haven’t used it, it is reputed to keep its image quality at longer focal lengths, and it DOES feature a significant amount of weather sealing. It’s still a trombone lens, and it is the largest and heaviest lens in this class at over 6 lbs. Despite the similar specifications, the Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 reviewed here is a different type of lens. It IS sealed, it keeps its image quality all the way out to 600mm, and it is NOT a trombone lens. It handles like a “baby” version of an exotic telephoto, not like a consumer-grade lens.
The other competitors to these lenses, on the other end of the spectrum, are exotic telephoto and supertelephoto lenses. The least expensive of the exotics are 300mm f2.8 lenses in the $5000-$7000 range (Sigma makes a 120-300mm f2.8 zoom for $3500 or so), and they range upward in price to the legendary Canon 1200mm f5.6 and Nikkor 1200-1700mm f5.6-8 monsters, either of which will generally cost over $100,000 used (both are out of production), and will crush pretty much any normal tripod. The most useful focal lengths for wildlife are in the 400-600mm range, and a 400mm f2.8 or 600mm f4 from Canon, Nikon or Sony is around $12000 or more. Sigma has a 500mm f4 for $6000, while Canon and Nikon versions are closer to $10,000. Canon and Nikon make zooms in the 200-400mm f4 range – you give up a stop of light and gain zoom plus a built-in 1.4x teleconverter that brings the lens to 560mm f5.6 at the flick of a switch. In addition to the cost, these lenses are also in the 7 lb range, sometimes more. They all have exceptional image quality, and are built to take a beating.
Used exotics are sometimes a possibility, especially if you can find one close to the current standards in autofocus and image stabilization and in good condition. Many of these lenses are owned by newspapers and magazines, and are used and abused by their professional sports photographers – but you’ll sometimes see one a few years old with 500 shots on it, being sold by a well-heeled hobbyist who is upgrading to the latest version. A good time to check is just after a new version of the focal length you want has been released by your preferred manufacturer– some photographers will sell off the previous version and buy the new one.
The Sony 200-600mm is a big lens – that’s certainly the first thing you’ll notice about it. It takes 95mm filters, it’s just over a foot (30 cm) long, and it weighs 4.65 lb (2.2 kg). For perspective, it’s a little longer, not quite as big around, and modestly lighter than a typical 300mm f2.8 (and it’s substantially smaller and lighter than any exotic telephoto longer than 300mm). For such a big lens, it’s a delight to handle – it handles a lot like a 300mm f2.8, rather than a similar-sized very long consumer zoom. It’s surprisingly well balanced – not as front-heavy as you would expect.
The fact that its balance never changes, because it’s not a trombone zoom, is a much bigger deal than you think if you’ve never handled a heavy lens that changes length by several inches, especially since the elements that move in the big trombone lenses are the heaviest elements at the front end of the lens. A 100-500 or 150-600 that extends is a VERY unwieldy beast, much worse than a 24-70, a 28-200 travel lens, or even a 100-400, because the extending piece is very long and very heavy.
While it’s big and heavy, the Sony 200-600 is (just) handholdable. It has a tripod foot (of course) and strap lugs of its own. The foot is not Arca-Swiss compatible, and just begs to be replaced with a Kirk, Wimberly or Really Right Stuff version that is. This is a big enough lens that you really don’t want to mount it to a tripod by mounting the camera. There are some lenses where using the tripod mount is optional (a typical 70-200mm f2.8, 100-400mm or the Nikkor 500mm f5.6 PF can be attached to a tripod by either camera or lens, although they generally come with tripod feet, and using them is preferable) – this is beyond that range. While it’s technically within Sony’s limits to carry with a strap attached to the camera, it would certainly benefit from a nice padded strap attached to the lens itself. All of this is equally true of any 300mm f2.8 lens, of course.
It feels like an exotic telephoto in many other ways, too. The focus and zoom rings are both wide and beautifully damped. There are a series of four switches (AF/MF, focus limiter, image stabilizer and stabilizer mode) on the rear barrel, right where you’d expect them on a Big White Lens. There are three customizable focus hold buttons – again, right where you’d find them on an exotic telephoto. The one handling caveat is that, unlike much more expensive exotic telephotos, it does NOT have full-time manual focus – you have to use the AF/MF switch or a button (one option is the focus hold button on the lens, either as a toggle of by holding it down) to switch from AF to MF. The build quality is very good, at least close to, if not quite at the standards of a true exotic telephoto.
Something to be aware of with this lens is that it’s going to require a few accessories of its own. Nothing that a photographer used to big lenses isn’t going to be used to, but things that aren’t immediately apparent if you’ve never used anything longer than a 70-200mm f2.8 or a 100-300mm. First of all, if you like to use filters, they’re expensive for a 95mm thread. Even a top-quality protective filter is going to cost between $75 and $200 at this size, and expect to pay $200 or more for a circular polarizer or an ND filter. Second, this lens wants its own strap and case. It’ll fit in the very longest of holster-type cases, or in a substantial backpack, but not in any normal-sized shoulder bag. It really shouldn’t be carried by the strap on the body, due to its size and weight – something like a Peak strap with quick disconnects could make a lot of sense here. Unless you want to be burdened with two straps, taking the straps off the body when you want to use this lens makes sense – one high-end strap with two sets of connectors allows you to use the strap on the body with your other lenses, and on the big lens. You probably want to upgrade the tripod foot to something Arca compatible, too. All in all, expect to pay $2500 to get set up and shooting with this lens, $3000 if you want the matching teleconverter (assuming you already have a tripod that’ll handle it). Another consideration with a lens this size is that you probably don’t want to be changing it in the field (especially if you’re moving the strap from body to lens). Expect to dedicate a body to it for the day… Most of the time, that’s not a big deal – you aren’t going to the same place to photograph birds and landscape. If you’re going out after birds, put the 200-600mm on the body, if you are after scenery, leave it home. If you have a second body, put a 24-70mm on that…
OK – it handles like a 300mm f2.8 (nothing in the last paragraph isn’t true of any other big lens – although sports photographers do change them in the field). How does it perform optically? A LOT closer to a 300mm f2.8 than it has any right to for $2000. Once I got used to how to focus and aim something this big, I was getting a high percentage of in-focus shots, and when it hits focus, it really hits focus. It’s pixel-sharp, even on the 61 MP A7rIV. It has very nice contrast, which really adds to the detail it pulls out – no, it’s not the 85mm Otus I had here a few months ago – but what is? It is at least comparable to the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 Sony G-Master and to the 500mm f5.6 PF Nikkor, which puts it at most a small step behind the true exotic telephotos. I had the 100-400mm and 200-600mm Sony lenses in direct succession, and I preferred the images from the less expensive 200-600mm almost every time. Part of that is that, in a lot of wildlife work, you can never have enough length – and this is the longest reasonable lens there is. 800mm lenses exist, but they’re either f11 or over $10,000. This is a very good 600mm lens with a decent aperture for a modest price, and it has the versatility of a substantial zoom range… A 600mm lens is a lot longer than a 400mm (until you shoot a 600mm, you may not realize just how big the difference is), and this lens gets you to 600mm for a great price and a decent weight for what it is. Highly Recommended, but a big commitment – the lens to get if you’re serious about wildlife and have a Sony system (short of Sony’s $12,000 exotics).
The little Sigma Contemporary lens is, in many ways, the opposite of the Sony 200-600mm. It will fit in your existing camera bag (any slot that will hold a 70-200mm f2.8 or a 100-400mm, and some large slots meant for a 70-300mm or a 28-200mm travel zoom). It doesn’t even come with a tripod collar, although one is available as an accessory. Far from requiring huge 95mm filters, it takes small (and standard) 67mm filters. It costs $949, and even an expensive B+W protective filter for it is only $35. Other than the 300mm f4 PF Nikkor (which uses diffractive optics to reach an almost unbelievably small size – it looks like a 24-70mm or even a recent fast 50mm), it’s about the smallest and lightest lens I’ve seen with substantial reach. If you’re looking for a lens to throw in your bag for when a little more reach is needed, the Sigma fits the bill.
What do you give up for a lens that’s half the price and twice the convenience? It’s not as sharp as the Sony… It’s a relatively sharp lens, but it loses in both sharpness and contrast to the much more expensive Sony (which doesn’t start at 100mm, either). Unfortunately, its weakest focal length is 400mm, right where you’d want it to be strongest for wildlife. It has substantially more vignetting than the more expensive lens. It’s not built like the Sony – it’s a trombone zoom that changes balance substantially, it’s not weather sealed, and it feels much more plasticky. The focus and zoom rings are decent – good consumer zoom – rather than the near-exotic lens smoothness of the Sony. It stops at 400mm, barely into the realm of what you want for wildlife, and it’s no faster at 400mm than the Sony is at 600mm. If these things weren’t true, it would be bigger, heavier and more expensive than it is. In a roundup of lenses that are more than twice as expensive, it’s the clear weak link – but it’s probably the best lens for many photographers who prize its versatility and value. The Sigma and the Nikkor 300mm PF are the only lenses in this roundup that don’t want to be the focus of a day photographing. You can easily pack it into a modest-sized camera bag to go on a hike where you might see some birds. It’s no harder to change on and off the camera than any other medium-sized lens. If you wouldn’t dedicate a body to your 24-70mm, 14-24mm or 70-200mm, you don’t need to here, either. It’s perfectly reasonable to set off with the 24-70mm Sigma Art on the camera for most images, but the 100-400mm Contemporary in the bag just in case it’s needed. That’s not an option with a much larger lens. It’s just about the size and weight of a full 1-liter Nalgene water bottle, and we carry those for miles… Where the Sony is a lens for serious birding and other wildlife work, the Sigma is a lens that allows you to carry substantial telephoto in a “just in case” package. It’s also a great lens for the kids’ soccer games, or even for the long-distance moments in daily life.
The image quality is good to very good (but not excellent) on the A7rIV – it is in the range of very good consumer zooms and low-end primes. It’s probably better than that on a less demanding body – there are plenty of lenses that are “not quite there” for critical sharpness on the A7rIV, some of which are very good lenses. It’s a better lens than, for example, Sony’s early 24-70mm and 28-70mm zooms, not as good a lens as the best recent Sony offerings or Sigma’s own Art lenses (which are superb). Roughly speaking, is it about as good as the 24-105mm f4? This is a better fit for a 24 mp camera than a 61 mp camera – or it’s fine on the 61 mp camera if you aren’t making huge prints. A lens like this on the A7rIV is a weird combination – a sub $1000 lens optimized (very well) for compactness on a body optimized for ultimate image quality. It may make sense for A7rIV shooters looking for telephoto capability without breaking the bank, but its real market (which it serves very well) is users of the 24mp bodies looking for a compact telephoto for a decent price.
This may sound like faint praise – but it’s not. The little Sigma is a lens that brings long telephoto capability to a size and price point that is hard to reach. A significantly better lens will be more than twice the price once you factor in the accessories, and it will be close to twice the weight. The relatively reasonable price of the Sony 200-600mm hides what kind of commitment the big lens is – the Sony and Sigma lenses barely overlap in their intended market. The Sigma is a “throw it in the bag” telephoto for a very wide range of uses, while the Sony is an exotic lens dedicated to serious supertelephoto work for a surprisingly reasonable price. For many photographers, the Sigma’s price and compactness will be a better fit than the Sony’s reach and image quality. There may even be reasons to own both – if you photograph kids’ sports from viewing areas where a compact lens is useful or enjoy long glass on extended day hikes, but also photograph birds or wildlife relatively close to the car… Highly Recommended as a “lifestyle” telephoto lens that won’t empty your wallet, break your back or distort your camera bag.
When it was launched in early 2017, this was the only full-frame mirrorless lens over 300mm. Until only a few months earlier, there were really no telephoto options for mirrorless bodies outside of Micro 4/3 (which has long had a number of longer lenses, helped by its 2x focal length multiplier). Within a few months in 2016 and 2017, three new options appeared, covering two mounts – the Fujifilm 100-400mm, Sony 70-300mm and Sony 100-400mm lenses. All three are versions of DSLR classics, rather than “this is only possible on mirrorless” designs – they are not unusual in size, weight, speed or focal length. Since that time, we have seen telephotos that stray farther from time-honored DSLR formulae – a trend that started with Nikon’s successful PF lenses for DSLRs (which also work beautifully on mirrorless cameras). Canon actually pioneered that technology, calling it DO, years ago – but the Nikon lenses have been much more successful. The Sony 100-400mm GM is a classic DSLR-style telephoto zoom, neither as svelte as Sigma’s nor with the extra reach and internal zoom of Sony’s own 200-600mm. The Sony 100-400mm is sharper than its Sigma competitor, and its focus and zoom rings are smoother – as it should be for 2.5x the price. It’s also weather sealed, unlike the Sigma, and somewhat unusually for a long telephoto that uses a trombone zoom. If Sigma had produced a lens that outperformed a $2500 Sony GM and sold it for under $1000, they’d have a real giant-killer, and would probably have labeled it an Art lens, rather than a Contemporary. Some of the Sigma Art lenses DO perform that well, and are not much more than half the price of their competitors – but they’re more likely to be between half and 2/3 the price of competitive offerings, not 40%.
The Sony 100-400mm is smaller and lighter than its 200-600mm stablemate, by quite a bit in your camera bag (although it’s not really shorter when zoomed to 400mm). It’s noticeably heavier and a tiny bit longer than the Sigma. I actually find the 200-600mm just as comfortable to handhold, even though it’s half again as heavy, because of the internal zoom. Even though Sony markets the 100-400mm as a GM lens and the 200-600mm as a G lens one step down, I don’t notice any difference in build quality between the two (the 100-400mm is built in Japan, while the 200-600mm is built in a Sony factory in China). The 200-600mm is one of the highest-end G lenses, and it shows in the build quality. I suspect Sony marketing uses GM on zoom lenses to mean “any lens that sells for over $2000”, and the 200-600mm misses by two dollars. Both seem to be well sealed – I didn’t take them in the shower to check – and my best guess is that the 200-600mm is actually the better sealed of the two, because of the internal zoom. It is very similar in image quality to the 200-600mm, although my experience is that the newer 200-600mm focuses a bit faster and has a higher focus hit rate. When either lens hits focus, they hit very, very well. The challenge for the 100-400mm is that it is actually more expensive than the 200-600mm, with no superior feature to justify its cost. For wildlife photography, I’d much rather have the range between 400-600mm than the range between 100-200mm, especially given that 100-200mm is the land of f1.4 and f2 primes and f2.8 zooms. I’m not a sports photographer, and there may well be sports situations where the 100-200mm range is critical and the range above 400mm is too long for practical use, especially in indoor sports (but is a 100-400mm fast enough for indoor sports)?
Almost any other way of getting into the 100-200mm range except a $400 consumer zoom is going to be faster than the short end of any 100-400mm lens. A set of lenses that goes from a 24-70mm or 24-105mm to a 100-400mm is certainly viable, but it doesn’t offer the quality or speed of a set including an 85mm portrait lens, a 70-200mm f2.8 or a 105mm macro lens (to name three more optimized options – there are others). Since all 100-400mm lenses are already somewhat heavy, they are unlikely to be a part of “long hikes” lens sets where speed is traded off for compactness (Fujifilm’s 18-55mm f2.8-4 and Nikon’s 24-70mm f4 are examples of high-quality small and light lenses). There are few if any long telephotos that can fit into such a lens set – the only long lens I’ve used that I’d consider backpacking with is Nikon’s little 300mm f4 PF, and I’ve never used Canon’s 600mm f11. The territory above 400mm is difficult to find and appears only on unwieldy lenses (the Sony 200-600mm is actually the easiest 600mm lens to handle except for the Canon 600mm f11).
If you already own a Sony 100-400mm, it’s an excellent lens, and the 200-600mm doesn’t offer any improvement in image quality, nor is the Sigma enough more compact to switch. However, if you’re trying to choose between them today, the 200-600mm has a better focal length range for wildlife, handles at least as well, and costs less. The Sigma is well under half the price and is somewhat more compact. The 100-400mm is the ideal choice only in a narrow window where the size and weight of the 200-600mm are prohibitive, and you are willing to pay a premium price for the step up in image quality over the smaller, lighter Sigma. Recommended for a somewhat narrow group of users for whom its specific tradeoffs between size, price and quality are preferred.
My initial reaction upon seeing the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF was “THAT is a 300mm lens? And it’s only a stop slower than the top-end professional standard?” It’s a bit smaller than a typical 24-70mm f2.8, or even a modern high-end 50mm f1.2 or f1.4, and a bit larger and heavier than a good 24-70mm f4. Not only is it a 300mm lens, it is a very good one. Unlike any other telephoto in this roundup, it is in no way a large lens – the decision to carry it is just like the decision to carry your 24-70mm, or your 14-24mm, or your 85mm portrait lens. I wouldn’t carry it hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, but it sure could come on a weekend backpacking trip!
300mm is a bit short for many wildlife applications, although the Nikkor works beautifully with Nikon’s latest 1.4x teleconverter, the TC-14E III. It’s a very sharp lens with good bokeh and decent subject separation. By far the best thing about it is that it’s an excellent 300mm lens, significantly better than the long end of any 70-300mm or 100-300mm lens I’ve used, and a stop faster, in a size and weight that otherwise only permits slow xx-300mm zooms. One disclaimer is that, while I’ve used a variety of xx-300mm zooms over the years, I have NOT used the Canon L lens (which is significantly heavier), nor the Sony G lens – both of which claim to be a cut above the usual grade of zooms in this focal range. They’re both a stop slower than the Nikkor, making teleconverter use more difficult – but either or both might be in the same quality range. I have used the current Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.9 AF-P, and there is no contest at all – the 300mm f4 PF is a much better lens (it’s also three times the price, although very similar in size and weight).
The handling of the little Nikkor is nothing short of remarkable. Since it’s an internally focusing prime, it’s actually a lot easier to handhold than a similar-sized 70-300mm zoom (which will be significantly extended at 300mm). It neither comes with nor needs a tripod collar, although one is available as an (expensive) accessory. Remember that it’s the size of a 24-70mm f2.8 and just mount the camera to the tripod as you would with a 24-70mm f2.8. Better yet, don’t use a tripod in many circumstances – this small lens has very good VR (Nikonese for image stabilization). Your minimum shutter speed will most likely be determined by subject motion, not camera shake. The lens is easy enough to handhold at 1/60 second, and possible modestly slower than that – if your subject will stay that still, which most wildlife won’t.
If it’s long enough, and you can afford it, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF will get farther into the backcountry in pursuit of wildlife than anything else – and it’ll come back with images limited only by the skill of the photographer. It’s a big upgrade from a typical zoom in the same focal length and weight range. It works very well on the FTZ adapter with the Z7. Even the stack of FTZ/TC-14E III/300mm PF is still a manageable size and weight, smaller and lighter than even the lightest 100-400mm lens. The TC-14E III causes some modest degradation in image quality, but it’s still better than most 100-400mm zooms at 400mm. I haven’t tried it, but it supposedly also works with the TC-20E III, yielding a 600mm f8 combination. Highly Recommended, although somewhat expensive for a 300mm f4 – the PF technology isn’t cheap.
If the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF is a very nice 300mm lens the size of a 24-70mm, its big brother is a 500mm lens the size of a 70-200mm f2.8. It’s clearly in exotic long lens territory, while not requiring a lot of special handling. It’s 100mm longer than a 100-400mm zoom without giving up any light, and while being quite a bit sharper than most 100-400mm lenses at the long end. This lens performs more like an exotic 500mm f4, which is more than twice the weight and close to three times the price, than it does like a typical (and much cheaper) consumer-grade zoom at 500mm. It’s only a stop slower than the fastest lenses at its focal length, although less expensive zooms are in the same aperture range (unlike the 300mm f4 PF, which is faster than the zooms).
It’s the best optical performer of the lenses in this roundup, as it should be for $3600 (and it’s impossible to find, even at that price). It’s extremely sharp (pixel-sharp on the 46 mp Z7), with good subject separation – while f5.6 is not terribly fast, 500mm is very long, which helps. I haven’t used the much cheaper 200-500mm Nikkor, since I couldn’t come up with a sample. Thom Hogan (whom I trust) says that this is a substantially better lens. This is an easy lens to handle, while what I’ve read of the 200-500 is that it’s not – it’s much heavier, and the trombone zoom puts a lot of weight at the far end of the lens (and the weight shifts as you zoom). Compared to the Sony 200-600mm, the Nikkor is a better performer, but not by a huge margin. Both offer professional-level long telephoto performance in a lens that is smaller, lighter and cheaper than the fast exotic telephotos.
Like its little brother, the 500mm Nikkor is a joy to handle. It’s as easy to handhold as a 70-200mm f2.8, which it resembles. Since both focus and zoom are internal, its weight doesn’t shift at all. VR is good enough to handhold it at 1/125 of a second, and possibly slower – good luck getting most wildlife to let you use a slower shutter speed. It comes with a tripod foot (non-Arca, of course). It’s actually small and light enough that it’s possible to mount the camera to a tripod, although a lens mounting will be better balanced. Wimberley makes a $60 Arca compatible replacement foot, and Really Right Stuff makes a $120 one. If you intend to use the lens on a tripod frequently, replace the foot (if you use it occasionally, an Arca plate will screw onto the Nikon foot)… While it has lugs for attaching a strap to the lens, it’s not necessary unless you’re carrying it a very long distance without a case – it’s still a reasonable-sized lens to carry by a body strap, although you’ll want a good one. It’ll fit in most large holster cases, big shoulder bags and modest-sized backpacks. Anyplace a 70-200mm f2.8 will go, this lens will probably go too. Just like the Sony 200-600mm, it takes a 95mm filter size – be ready for expensive filters. Highly Recommended – a professional caliber 500mm in a reasonably compact package. It’s compatible with the TC-14E III, too – especially on the mirrorless bodies, which focus at smaller apertures than most of the DSLRs. I haven’t tried the combination, but a compact 700mm f8 is intriguing. I hope Nikon brings out some PF lenses in native Z mount – they’re a wonderful match for the compact bodies. Until then, the PF lenses work very well on the FTZ. If you’re a Nikon shooter, and can afford one or both PF lenses, you won’t go wrong. While expensive, the two lenses and the TC-14E III provide a great range of focal lengths (300mm f4, 420mm f5.6, 500mm f5.6, 700mm f8). The long end of this set is about as long as it’s practical to go most of the time. If you have to choose between the two PFs, as most of us do, the 500mm is a better focal length for wildlife (unless most of your subjects are whales), but the 300mm is more versatile for other types of photography. Both are remarkably compact for what they are, but the 300mm is exceptionally compact – it doesn’t even handle like a telephoto. The much less expensive 200-500mm Nikkor also has a great reputation, although it’s certainly clunkier to handle than a PF lens.
For the Sony shooter, the 200-600mm is a standout performer for its very reasonable price. It’s a big lens, and it requires big lens technique and commitment, but a good 600mm lens with a reasonable maximum aperture for $2000 plus accessories is a breakthrough. The zoom is a nice feature – but it’s a heck of an oversized slow 200mm lens! During the time I had a sample, I rarely used it below 400mm, and almost never below 300mm. In a migration, you might occasionally use it to get an image of a flock at 200mm – it’s faster to use it at 200mm than it is to change lenses. If you’re looking for a lens to use primarily in the 200-300mm range, Sony and Sigma make numerous smaller, lighter, cheaper options. For Sony and L-mount shooters, the Sigma 100-400mm DG DN Contemporary offers a great option that involves much less financial and handling commitment than the bigger lenses. For under $1000, and as a reasonably sized lens, it lets the aspiring wildlife photographer try it out without spending as much money or upgrading other parts of their system. It also has a versatile focal length range for many other types of photography, although it is comparatively slow at the short end of the range. Sigma should be introducing it in other mirrorless mounts soon.