New or Old for the Exotic Telephotos?

Every time Canon or Nikon introduces a newly refined version of their exotic telephoto lenses, the question comes up: is the new one worth the money, or can I save some money by purchasing an older version?

First, a review of what I consider to be the “exotics” in Nikon’s lineup and their current technology (in parentheses):

  • 200mm f/2 (G, Nano, VR)
  • 300mm f/2.8 (G, Nano, VR)
  • 400mm f/2.8 (E, Nano/Fluorine, new VR, weight reduction via FL elements)
  • 500mm f/4 (E, Nano/Fluorine, new VR, weight reduction via FL elements)
  • 600mm f/4 (E, Nano/Fluorine, new VR, weight reduction via FL elements)
  • 800mm f/5.6 (E, Nano/Fluorine, new VR, weight reduction via FL elements)
  • 120-300mm f/2.8 (E, Nano/Fluorine, VR)
  • 180-400mm f/4 (E, Nano/Fluorine, new VR, weight reduction via FL elements, TC)
  • 200-400mm f/4 (G, Nano, new VR)

All of these lenses are produced in very low quantity with very high standards. Nikon sometimes uses these models to introduce new features or technologies, and each of these lenses has a fairly long pedigree that dates back into the film era. The 200mm f/2 dates back to 1977 and the 200-400mm f/4 dates back to 1984, which surprises a lot of folk who haven’t been paying attention to Nikon’s lens updates.  

Thus, most of these lenses have gone from manual focus AI-S versions to autofocus to even more modern autofocus revisions. The wildlife standard 500mm f/4 has had six major iterations, for example:

  • 500mm f/4P IF-ED (manual focus)
  • 500mm f/4D IF-ED AF-I
  • 500mm f/4D IF-ED AF-S
  • 500mm f/4D IF-ED AF-S II
  • 500mm f/4G ED AF-S VR
  • 500mm f/4E ED AF-S FL VR

Optically, the original manual focus P version and the AF-S D version were probably the best, but we’d be nit-picking to distinguish between any two of those models from a functional optical standpoint during shooting. I’ve used all of these models (and have owned the P and the G versions), and I’m perfectly happy with any of them optically. 

Yes, yes, I know that if I pull up Nikon’s MTF charts the latest version of the lens looks to have better meridional values at the corners than the previous version (92% versus 82%). However those are hypothetical numbers not measured ones, and both lenses are close to 100% through the majority of the frame. For sports and wildlife shooting, the difference in the far corners simply isn’t going to come into play, and at these contrast levels, I just don’t see how you’d be seeing meaningful differences in your images between the two lenses.

Which brings up the question: should you pay the Nikon tax for a new model? The G model I’m using last listed for US$8580, while the newer E model is US$10,300, a whopping US$1720 difference in price, almost enough to buy a D500 body.

KEH lists the same G model at about US$5000 used, the D model AF-S between US$4100-4300 used, and the manual focus P version at as low as US$1360 used. (Prices current when article last updated.)

If these lenses are all optically very similar to the point where you can ignore that, what constitutes the US$8000+ price variation, then? Autofocus, VR, lens coatings, and weight, basically. Oh, and of course, the cachet of owning the latest. 

My friend Roger Cicala at LensRentals will rent you the latest version for US$800 for a two-week use period, so you could rent the latest version about 13 times for the price you’d pay for it. The older G version will only set you back US$585 for that two-week use period. (Insurance for drop or loss would add to those numbers.)

How about Canon? Well, pretty much the same thing applies. Canon has been building similar exotic lenses for the entire history of the EF mount. You won't see quite as long a history of lenses you can use due to Canon's mount change from FD to EF in 1987, but you'll see the same kind of progression of small feature changes in the Canon mount. 

Here are the lenses I'd consider the Canon exotics:

  • 200mm f/2L IS USM
  • 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with built-in 1.4x TC
  • 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • 400mm f/4 DO IS II
  • 500mm f/4L IS II USM
  • 600mm f/4L IS II USM
  • 800mm f/5.6L IS USM

And here's the Canon 400mm f/2.8 history (changes in parentheses):

  • 400mm f/2.8 USM 
  • 400mm f/2.8 USM II (lower weight)
  • 400mm f/2.8 IS USM (IS, lower weight, optics change)
  • 400mm f/2.8 IS II USM (closer focus, added diaphragm blade, lower weight)

So in both the case of Canon and Nikon, you'll find a bit over a dozen high-priced exotic telephoto lenses, each of which has had two or more—sometimes many—iterations in its life. 

My advice on the exotics needs to be considered with all of the above in mind. Here’s where I stand these days:

  • Rent — If you’re going to only use an exotic for two to four weeks a year, and in only one or two sessions annually, I think you should just rent. Sure, you don’t actually own anything, but unlike the old days the exotics are no longer holding their value long-term from model to model. Thus, buying and using infrequently is probably wasting money.
  • Buy as Low as you Dare — If you really just have to have an exotic sitting around in your gear closet—even if you aren’t using it all the time—it makes a lot of sense to buy a good, clean used one that’s a generation or two old. You’ll save 25% or more from buying new and still have a lens that performs close enough to state-of-the-art that you’re not going to notice the difference.
  • Buy Third Party — The Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM is very close to the specs and features of the latest Nikkor and sells new for US$6000, or almost US$5000 less than the Nikon version and US$3000 less than the Canon version. There's nothing wrong with this approach, though there is a very small bit of risk that Nikon changes something in future DSLR bodies that Sigma can't offer a firmware fix for.
  • Buy the Latest — A working pro that uses their exotic all the time (wildlife, sports photographers, basically) is going to benefit from one key thing by grabbing the latest version: lower weight and size to deal with. When you’re going from event to event, or into a backwoods or foreign from location to location, the toll that an extra couple of pounds makes can be considerable over time. Even little things like the fluorine coating on the front element can make your life easier. But I’d say that to be in this category you either have to be in the 1% (e.g. rich) or a hard-working pro that's writing their gear off against their income.

Don’t be afraid of the older exotic models. Yes, they may have fewer features, and yes, some of the older AF-I lenses are noisier and just a teeny bit slower than the later AF-S ones to focus. You might not get VR. But most of the things you’d be missing don’t really come into substantive play most of the time. VR, for example: if you’re shooting wildlife or sports your shutter speeds should be high enough that VR ought to be turned off. 

I used to shoot sports with the old manual focus exotics. They were great. Indeed, the lenses I was using probably exceeded what I could really get out of film in terms of consistent edge to edge overall sharpness (remember, film tended to bow in the camera). 

Sure, all the major features that came after (autofocus and VR mostly) were nice to have, but not too long ago I shot with a 500mm f/4P again, and after a bit of wondering why my right thumb wasn’t controlling focus, I got back into my old manual focus habits pretty quickly. 

Don’t be quick to dismiss an older exotic. It can save you some real dollars, and it still can deliver impressive results, even on the 36mp D810. That’s true of the entire line of lenses I list at the top. 

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