Lenses and Optics

The Requested 80-400 AF-S vs. 70-200 VR II and 2X Comparison

Published March 25, 2013

Well, for the first time I’ve totally caved to popular demand and done a test I had little interest in doing. But after I did a Quick-Take post on the new Nikon 80-400 AF-S VR lens I received about two-dozen emails and comments asking if the 70-200 f/2.8 AF-S VR II lens with a Nikon 2X III teleconverter was as good as, or better than, the new 800-400 AF-S VR.

My first impulse was to do Standard Internet Response #1 — give an absolute answer, such as ‘obviously not’, despite having no facts to back that answer up. Then I considered Standard Internet Response #3 — give a useless, but factual, answer like, ‘well, if you have a 70-200 and teleconverter already, that’s certainly adequate’. (I never use Standard Internet Response #2 – the ‘if you’re a good enough photographer it doesn’t matter which you use’ response, nor S.I.R. #4 — ‘Google is your friend’.)

But, since it really is a reasonable question and a lot of people seemed interested, we set up to Imatest the 70-200 f/2.8 VR II / 2X III combination. Please be aware that our longest testing distance is 40 feet, which isn’t ideal for testing 400mm lenses, but it’s the longest we have. (I’m pretty comfortable it’s a longer testing distance than anyone else has, too, except maybe DxO and they aren’t really sharing information about their testing set up). Results may be quite different at 300 feet. I’m not sure which way they’d be different. The 70-200 seems sharper at this distance than it does at infinity, at least that’s what most people say. On the other hand, teleconverters are generally tuned for long distance shooting. So I just don’t know. (BTW – “I don’t know” is not a listed S. I. R.)

Imatest Results

We used an identical setup to the tests we ran last week on the 80-400 AF-S and 80-400 AF lenses to test the 70-200 f/2.8 with 2X combination. The MTF50 results are shown in the table below. The bottom line, from a resolution standpoint, the new 80-400 is clearly better. The previous 80-400 is better than the 70-200 with 2X right in the center, but outside the center the 70-200 with TC is very close.

  Center MTF50 Avg MTF50 Avg. Corner MTF50
Nikon 80-400 AF-S820675480
Nikon 80-400 AF725575410
Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 with 2X600560440

What does it mean? Mostly it means if you’re shooting at 40 feet distance the 70-200 VR II and 2x teleconverter will get you a nice usable image, but not as good as you would get with the 80-400 VR II.

The old 80-400 AF lens is better in the center than the 70-200 VR II combination, although that’s just right at the center. Less than 1/3 of the distance away from the center, the two are even.

I can’t say the results would be the same if the shooting distance was near infinity, and I’m not sure how they’d change. The 70-200 alone is reputed to be a bit less sharp at infinity, though. On the other hand, the teleconverter might well have less of an effect at the longer shooting distance.


Roger Cicala


March, 2013

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • Martin

    Roger, I assume you used the D3x for this comparison?
    Thank you

  • Lynn

    Love your blog! And *thank you* for conducting this test!

    I have a 300mm f/4 (+TC) for birding, and I like it a lot, but I also need a zoom with some “reach” (and fast autofocus) for sheepdog trials. I’d found the 70-200 with 2x TC far too soft. I know where I’ll be renting a new 80-400 from for the National Sheepdog Finals this coming fall!

  • Jeff

    I would think test shot comparisons of a full moon on a clear haze free night would be good way to do telephoto lens evaluations. Using the 70-200 + TCIIIx2 combination on a D800 body I compared 2 shots, one in FX mode and one in DX mode. The shot in FX mode when cropped and enlarged to match the moon’s diameter of the shot taken in DX mode was a bit sharper.

  • Clint

    Thanks for caving in and doing the test. It is really much appreciated.

  • John Leslie

    No problem, it just seemed interesting to me. Right now lurking is looking increasingly attractive to me too, but I do get a bit annoyed when the fans are being a bit selective in what they say to people about to spend their hard-earned (some of which can be very hard earned too). Not that I claim to have the definitive view on anything, just I like to think I have an open mind and don’t think anything is simply the best there is due to the attached name(s). For example I shoot Canon, Panasonic and a RX1000, but if people want a consumer DSLR right now I suggest if weight isn’t a big issue they start at the Nikon D5100, which at UKP375 with a kit lens is a lot of sensor for the money (and they shouldn’t miss the DoF button in the overall mix).

    Oh, and now you’re a Canon user can I suggest a nice forum to post in – http://www.eos-magazine-forum.com/forumdisplay.php?3-EOS-system – the posting rate is fairly low but other than some L-lens fans it’s very laid back and I never get wound up. Well so far anyway… (P.S. could you delete this paragraph after you read it.)

  • Roger Cicala


    I’ve considered what you describe, but I’m afraid with that many variables it get’s right back to being subjective rather than objective. There would be a 32 page argument over whether the distortion corrections were ideal, if the raw converter was better for one file than another, etc. etc. Now you see why I usually just lurk – many people are too emotionally invested: they know what they know and aren’t going to let any facts influence that at all.

  • John Leslie

    Thank you – I guess as the 12-35 needs correcting and the 40/2.8 doesn’t have to have that (although I use DXO for Raw processing so it will get some corrections) then with actual “pictures you can look at” the Canon has a slight extra advantage.

    I know this is all a bit off topic, but I often see numbers getting compared in your blog comments and am unsure how to read them so posted somewhere recent so it would be seen by a few people.

    BTW do you think I’m making dubious-sounding claims (to your highly lens test energised brain) saying I find the 5DmkII+40 at f2.8 noticeably sharper than the GH3+12-35 at any aperture, since it seemed that way to me (but did seem to start a religious war, which wasn’t my plan)?

    I guess a blog idea would be using unsharpened raw files and comparing the results with corrected files using the default settings of a few raw converters that do lens correction (LR+DXO+Silkypix+?) to see how the sharpness changes (also for lenses where it isn’t essential to see what it loses you)?

    Alas I’m in the U.K. so can’t rent lenses from you to show my appreciation for your blog, which I always find an interesting read. Still maybe you can expand eastwards at some point? ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Roger Cicala

    Hi John,

    Cross-brand and cross- sensor size Imatest comparison is always difficult. In theory, using Line Pairs / Image Height should get you something that does correlate with how well – resolved a print could be. In theory.

    With Micro 4/3 compared to larger sensors, though, there’s a lot going on that could make comparing between brands really though:

    I’m still not absolutely certain even raw files in m4/3 aren’t slightly manipulated. Probably not, but I’m uncertain.

    m4/3 has a corner sharpness advantage because of the shape of the sensor – corners are less far away from the center proportionately, particularly horizontally. In Imatest, particularly, whether a 4:3 or other proportion chart is used for the test can accentuate this.

    Another aspect is many, perhaps most m4/3 lenses have significant distortion. Correcting this in post reduces sharpness. So a lens with sharper numbers may not really have sharper images if a lot of that resolution is used up correcting distortion.

    Center MTF 50 should be a fairly good comparison to real-world shooting.

    All of that being said there still is some differentiation in how much an image can be post processed in the real world. I’ve been doing some diffraction limited work lately, for example, and I can do ridiculously high sharpening algorithms on a D800 file that I just can’t do on a 16 mpix file. That’s extreme but it may be that a standard postprocessing may make a difference. I just don’t know.

    My own opinion is when I look at Imatest data comparing, say Nikon or Tamron lenses on a D800 I feel pretty comfortable that measured differences have some real-world correlation. I’m not as comfortable that holds true if I compare different systems.

  • John Leslie

    I’m getting some grief so kinda bumping my comment (err, sorry)… some help please… it would be most appreciated (even if I’m wrong, in fact especially)…

  • Roger Cicala

    I have tested some old lenses that way – up to a 1905 Zeiss Protar. They often resolve very well at f/5.6 or lower. The older wide-aperture primes, though, generally can’t keep up with today’s lenses in the corners and edges at least, particularly the wider angle ones. Those older lenses give very interesting looks but as a rule don’t resolve like today’s lenses.

  • Anon

    Just curious: have you ever done a resolution test between a modern lens and an older lens to see how they compare? I have some old, old MF Nikkors (like early 60’s/FL measured in CM – old) that I like to fool around with and I’ve always wondered how they would do against today’s best.

  • Roger Cicala


    I know and like some of those lenses, but unfortunately don’t have the ability to test the legacy ones. The Tamron 200-500 we might be able to do, though.

  • Andrei Kolin

    Roger, thanks a lot for your great articles and also for having the time and patience to make reader-inspired tests.
    Besides the lenses you compared in this round, there are several other older (and cheaper) lenses which give 400/5.6 at their long end.
    These include Sigma and Tokina primes and Tamron 200-400/5.6 but probably there are more.
    The question is how do they compare? If their sharpness is not too bad, they could present a nice alternative. And considering they could be paired with x1.4 TC while keeping the AF…

  • John Leslie

    Can I ask if there are any limitations comparing cameras+lenses between manufacturers using your MTF50 numbers? If lens A gets 850 and lens B 900 does that mean it’s just plain sharper or is some normalisation for sensor size/pixel count involved?

    (I ask as my Canon 40/2.8 on a 5DmkII seems noticeably sharper at f2.8 than my 12-35 stopped down on a GH3, which kinda disagrees with your numbers, so I thought useful to know before I read into other cross-system comparisons.)

  • Richard

    @Russ: you can get an RSS feed on any site by using “Page2RSS” (http://page2rss.com/).
    It’s a doddle to use: you just add a link to your browser’s favourites bar – the site shows you how – and then whenever you want to create a feed for a site just go the site and then click the link.
    @Roger – great stuff as always. Oh, and I hate video reviews too.

  • Bart

    Thanks for your observations, Roger. You said the 80-400mm lenses don’t get sharper when stopping down. In my experience the 70-200mmF2.8VRII + TC2III combo does so significantly. Therefore, I’m quite sure you’d get different results at F8 (*hint*). Unfortunately, the 70-200+TC2 combo suffers from a focus shift problem in the middle focal lengths when stopping down (not at 200mm though), so it’s more a 70-200F2.8 + 400mmF8 lens than a 70-400mm zoom ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Jon

    Thanks Roger, confirms what I have seen in my limited tests. I am thinking I will save for the 300 2.8 instead of purchasing this lens.

  • John

    This will go down in the forum world as an entirely non-resolvable issue.

    The guys who have plunked down the huge bucks for the 70-200 2.8 lens w/TCs will invariably seek to discredit the new 80-400 at all costs.

    There’s already a bitch-festival on the new 80-400 goin on at Nikon Rumors — such is the nature of technology.

    Personally I see a real niche for the new nikon lens among brand loyalists, particularly once the price is adjusted. A professional / pixel obsessed hobbyist sports or wildlife shooter is going to have (or RENT) a 300mm – 600mm prime for critical work AND use a tripod / monopod. Non-wealthy enthusiast shooters think about using TCs on existing glass, or investing in Tamron / Sigma. Lets face it, the percentage of guys who complain about 200mm – 400mm glass spend less time shooting in that range (if any) than they do arguing about it online in forums.

    It’s a great piece of glass in need of an achievable price point.

  • Chris

    Hi Roger, thanks very much for doing that test and so quickly. I find you results very interesting not only because they are helping us make a real world desision, but also it is the first time I have ever come across any scientific testing of tele-converters. Your test has now left me wanting more and wondering all sorts of things such as how different converters stack up against each other. Does the same converter have bigger and smaller resolution reducing effects on different lenses? Given that a tele-converter reduces the resolving ability of the camera lens combo to produce an enlarged section of the subject, and that interpolating an image reduces the resolved detail in order to produce an enlarged version of the subject, what is the imatest difference between the two? I know doing this tele-converter test hasn’t exactly floated you boat, but if you did ever get excited about this subject then it has the makings of very interesting in depth study.

    PS. Did you enjoy you holiday? how are you liking your new camera?

    PPS. Video reveiws are so 2010. Words are the new rock and roll. Keep writing – we’ll keep reading.

  • Roger Cicala

    400mm, correct.


    Makes me wonder if you are better off shooting the 70-200 without the tele-converter and just doing a crop in post processing. I would rather save up the extra$$$ and go for the Sigma 120-300 2.8 OS.

  • Steve

    Craig, the original article had this to say about stopping down.

    “One thing I will mention is that all three of these lenses donโ€™t really get sharper in the center when stopped down. The corners sharpen up a bit, but thatโ€™s about it.”

    I suspect you will see more of an improvement with contrast when stopping down.

  • When you say both we’re at f/5.6, I presume you mean the 70-200 was at f/2.8, which is equivalent to f/5.6 with the teleconverter.

  • Russ

    Could you guys please set up (or whatever it is you have to do) an RSS feed for this blog?

  • Brian

    Awesome. Thanks for the test.

  • One comment – I’ve got the AF 80-400vr, and a 300F4 + 1.4 Nikon TC. I’ve tested them both a lot (D300 and D700). In my experience, the 80-400 AF lens is really quite soft at 400mm f5.6 and doesn’t get decent until F8. The 300 with TC also needs to be stopped down a bit, but not as much.

    Could you do a quick test to see what the new 80-400 AF-S is doing at 400mm once you get past F5.6?

    Regarding the 40-foot test setup, I think that’s not a bad distance. I use my 80-400 frequently at about that distance for birds, and sometimes closer. Shooting a great distances tends to lose a lot of sharpness due to atmospheric conditions, and if you’re grossly short at 400mm, an extreme crop just isn’t going to help that much. (I totally lost interest in a $8000 500f4 once I put the 300F4 on my Nikon V1 and got 10 usable megapixels at an effective 810mm.)

  • Paul

    What was the focal length? 400mm?

  • Roger Cicala

    Phil, thank you, I should have mentioned. Both were at f/5.6

  • Phil

    What was the aperture used on each?

  • jubi

    Thank you. This is why lensrentals is my favorite blog. Living in europe i could no rent from you. sorry for that.
    Anyway, if i find a dozen of emailers asking you to do the same test with the 70-200 f4, do you think that maybe… sometimes… testing…. ?

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