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Comparison: Nikon 200-400mm F4 VR vs. Opteka 500mm mirror lens

One of the most common questions I get is "what's better _____ or _____ and why?"
The following is a very good example of top of the line glass vs. an "e-bay special".

The competitors:

Nikon/Nikkor 200-400mm F4 VR
Price: $6999 CAD

Opteka 500mm F8 mirror lens
Price $100 CAD

Some people will question the usefulness of a test that compares a $7000 lens to a $100 one however, this comparison is actually derived from quite a popular question of what and why lenses are more expensive than others. This comparison is really a broad globalization of the answer and not as comprehensive a test as needed to truly compare two lenses. However, in this case, I think the results from a single photo serve to tell the whole story.

Nikon 200-400mm @ F8:

Opteka 500mm @ F8:

With the two photos above although you can start to see the image quality difference, it's when you zoom closer to 50% or 100% that you see the true difference between both lenses.

100% crops from the above images:

Nikon 200-400mm:

Opteka 500mm:

In comparing the two images above there is a clear winner between the two lenses. The Nikon shows a huge amount of feather detail whereas on the Opteka the feathers are reduced to a brown detailless mush. This is the essence of image quality, more detail = better quality = better prints and viewing in general.

In use:
Although it's heavy and I normally mount it on a tripod when I'm using it for long periods of time the Nikon 200-400 is one of the sharpest lenses I own, even over the Nikon 70-200mm 2.8, and that's saying a lot.
I'm not a big believer in VR technology but when using it on a long lens like this it sure does help when you're framing your shot to keep it steady.

As opposed to that the Opteka is extremely hard to focus as it is a manual focus lens and you have to rotate the whole barrel which also elongates the lens itself. Using the focus finder > 0 < in the viewfinder is the only way of being sure you're even close to being focused and even then it's hard to tell as well as hard to get it to stay focused on anything.

The Opteka does have one interesting feature that the Nikon doesn't, it's a mirror lens. In other words, it uses a circular optic to send light into and back onto the sensor and creates a really interesting donut shape in it's bokeh for any major point of light such as the highlights on waves or holiday lights.

Pros & Cons:

Nikon 200-400mm F4
-Excellent quality detailed images even wide open at F4
-Extremely good low light performer especially on a camera with good quality high ISO such as the Nikon D3/D700 etc
-Extremely fast focusing
-Price (you can buy a really nice used vehicle for the same price)
-Big and heavy: You can't fit this one in your pocket, or even a backpack, you need a medium sized case or extremely large backpack to carry it in. -Although it's possible to hand hold for short periods of time, most people use it on a tripod with gimbal head)

Opteka 500mm
-Light & compact
-Mirror lens donut bokeh
-You have to manually focus and expose using this lens
-Almost usable due to poor image quality. This is a longer story since the budget for almost any 500mm lens is normally at least dozens of times higher than the $100 price tag of the Opteka 500mm. Yes, this is a fun lens to play with for a couple of days but if you're like I was and thought "I can't go wrong for $100" well I was kind of wrong. This lens has sat on a shelf as a reminder to myself and others who I've lent it to that sometimes you don't even get anywhere near to what you paid for.
-You can clearly see a amount of light falloff where only about the middle 20% is bright and then falls off to dark very quickly.

Although there are few people who are thinking of buying the Opteka that will be able to just break out the cash for the Nikon I would almost recommend against buying the Opteka at all. Instead I would suggest buying a 70-300mm and/or a teleconverter. If you can get the Opteka 500mm for less than the $100 on an ebay auction then it might be more worth it.

*After not having touched this article for over 3 years it has been updated as of June 2012 to include a bit of new content and more recent thoughts thanks to other lens purchases.

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