Exotics Telephotos Other Than The Primary Brands

I use the word "exotics" to describe the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E, 200mm f/2G, 200-400mm f/4G, 300mm f/2.8G, 400mm f/2.8E, 500mm f/4E, 600mm f/4E, and 800mm f/5.6E. In the Canon lineup we have the 200mm f/2L, 200-400mm f/4L, 300mm f/2.8L, 400mm f/4 DO, 500mm f/4L, 600mm f/4L, and 800mm f/5.6L. These are all high quality lenses that are very expensive. But if you're a birder, shooting certain types of sports, or doing wildlife shooting that needs reach (Yellowstone, Denali, African safari, etc.), you probably need one or more of these lenses. 

Suffice it say, the spousal acceptance factor (SAF) is near zero ("hey honey, mind if I drop ten grand on some new gear?"). Heck, even without a spouse, you have to gulp hard before plunking down the kind of cash these lenses command. 

Is there an alternative? Yes, there are several:

  • Go Rent. Be realistic: how many times a year are you really going to use an exotic? If your answer is six weeks or less, you've got to consider renting. The 200-400mm should set you back about US$300 a week, the 400mm or 500mm closer to US$400. Six weeks is US$1800 to US$2400. It would take you at least three years to begin to justify the cost of buying at six weeks of use a year. But the big win here is being able to choose the right exotic for the right job. Going to Denali? Rent the 600mm. Going to a private preserve in South Africa? Rent the 180-400mm. Got an indoor sports gig coming up? Rent the 200mm. By the end of the first year of renting, you'll know which one you want to own.
  • Go Retro. Nikon has made most of these lenses since way back in the film days, indeed back into the manual focus days. The 500mm was made in AI-P, AF-I, and AF-S versions prior to the current VRII version. A used 500mm f/4P in good condition (US$2000-3000) may be one of the best exotic bargains on the market. You'll give up autofocus and VR, but you don't lose a thing in image quality compared to the current one. A lot of seminal wildlife shots were made with that lens. Sure, hand-held birds in flight might be out of the question, but I've shot a few times in recent years with this lens on tasks that most people think they need autofocus for and came out the other end with the images I wanted. If you need autofocus, look for an AF-I or early AF-S version. As I point out in my article on VR, you're probably shooting with VR off most of the time, anyway. 
  • Go Rogue. The real option here is Sigma. After a brief retooling, Sigma is back with a 500mm f/4. You give up very little over the Nikkor but at a much lower price. The 300-800mm f/5.6 is a beast of a lens, but optically quite good. The 120-300mm f/2.8 is quite decent. The one thing I'd warn about is teleconverters: in my experience with these lenses—even with Sigma's own HSM teleconverters—they don't hold up as well with a converter as do the Nikkors. Thus, make sure you buy enough lens. 
  • Go Rogue and RetroSigma, Tokina, and Tamron all made 300mm f/2.8 manual and (I believe) autofocus lenses at one time. I've seen these things new in Japan for as little as the price of the 70-200mm. I've seen used versions for far less than that. Optically, they're very good. But again you'll be giving up focus (even in autofocus—none are AF-S fast) and VR.
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