Nikon’s 80-400mm received a long-deserved update earlier in the year; it’s in fact had a complete overhaul and optical redesign. The original lens was Nikon’s very first VR lens, and body-driven to boot – the large front element had a reputation for pinching fingers between the protruding filter ring flange and the zoom ring (I fell victim to this on my first outing with it). It’s gone from being a 17/11 design to a more complex 20/12, gained Nano-Crystal coating, a shorter minimum focus distance (1.75m in AF and 1.5m in MF vs 2.3m), a silent wave motor and internal focusing, second-generation VR, and plethora of additional switches. Gone is the aperture ring, so you’re not going to be using this on a pre-command dial film body. The hood is also now a petal-type design with the same kind of locking catch as the 17-55, 24-70 and 70-200 hoods. It reverses for storage. Unlike the old lens, it’s also fully gasketed and weather sealed. It’s also more expensive; about $800 more, to be precise.
The lens surprised me when I unpacked it from what must be Nikon’s largest-ever gold box; it came inside one of those ballistic-nylon zip cases with a shoulder strap, and with a hood. (I’m looking at you, Olympus.) The physical size is larger than you’d expect; it feels quite a bit more bulky than the 70-200/2.8 II, and is a good inch and a half longer than its predecessor, and ~200g heavier. This is not a trivial lens, especially with the hood on and extended to the 400mm position. It’s hand-holdable, but I highly recommend using support of some kind, especially if you’re shooting it with a high resolution body like the D800E. A monopod is fine, and will make a world of difference.
Images in this review were shot at one of my favorite testing and workshop locations in Kuala Lumpur for long lenses – the KL Bird Park. It’s an enclosed free-flight aviary with captive birds, which takes the chance element out of whether you’re going to see any wildlife or not. I used a monopod for support, but did experiment with handholding the lens a few times. Click here for my article on long lens handling techniques.
Too bad the tripod collar is extremely poor, however. It’s flimsy, wobbly, and looks like it was made from two castings melted together, or injection moulded metal; there’s a visible seam line down the middle. It’s easily one of the cheapest-feeling tripod collars I’ve ever seen; unfortunately, it also performs like it – when the lens is mounted on a tripod, the collar doesn’t rotate smoothly at all (it judders) and there’s quite a bit of pitch wobble. This is visible in the form of double images from shutter vibration at marginal shutter speeds (1/125 and below, 400mm). VR helps but doesn’t eliminate it entirely. Fortunately it’s removable entirely, which opens things up to other third-party manufacturers to make a better alternative.
That said, the latest generation of Nikon’s VR system is extremely effective, and is very, very stable once it’s locked in. It also locks in a bit faster than previous iterations and doesn’t seem to ‘jump’ between frames, either. It has automatic panning detection and an active mode that cancels it out. As usual, at high enough shutter speeds – I’d say 1/1000 and above – turn VR off, as you run the risk of double images as the system sometimes has trouble responding at that frequency.
Needless to say, focusing is much, much faster than the old lens; subjectively, I’d say it’s not quite as fast as the 70-200/2.8 II through the full range, but it’s pretty close. (Needless to say, it didn’t even come close to the 400/2.8.) There’s also a two-position focus limiter that allows either the full range or 6m to infinity; this is a rather bizzare choice of distances, as the 6m near limit seems to be not quite close enough for birding, and not far enough to really speed things up if you’re shooting sport. A three position switch would be far more useful – full range, 4m to infinity, and 10m to infinity. There’s also a zoom lock at the bottom to keep the lens locked in the 80mm position, but in practice I found it to be stiff enough not to extend by itself even if carried pointing downwards.
My experience with older lens was from many, many years ago on a D2H and D2x; I do recall that results on the D2x were highly dependent on focusing accuracy, and as with all body-driven lenses, small changes in focus distance were often lost in the backlash inherent in the system. However, it’s been so long that I borrowed something a bit more ambitious for a relative comparison: the AF-S 400/2.8 II. The optics are nearly identical to the current AF-S 400/2.8 G VR II, which is to say, excellent. I’ve shot the latter on several occasions and found it to be one of Nikon’s very best, and one of the best lenses I’ve used, period. It had better be for $9,000.
Whole frame. Difference in rendering between f2.8 and f5.6 at 400mm. Note how the 80-400 also shows vignetting and a slightly different rendering style. I can’t help but wonder if the higher macrocontrast (not microcontrast) is due to the 80-400 having Nano-crystal coating, and the older 400/2.8 lacking it.
Against the 400/2.8, both wide open. Click here for a 100% crop.
The short of the matter is that the 80-400 compared surprisingly well to the 400/2.8; if you compare both wide open, resolution is similar, with the 400 having a touch more microcontrast bite; there’s really not a lot in it, though. Both are critically sharp at maximum aperture on the D800E, with the 400/2.8 improving to peak at f5.6, and the 80-400 improving to f8 and holding constant for a couple of stops as the resolution gains are cancelled out by the onset of diffraction. The 80-400 performed consistently well throughout the range, but being slightly stronger at the 80mm end. One thing I noticed was that the different ends of the zoom required different amounts of AF fine tune – +5 at 80mm, +10 at 400mm (I left it at +8 in the end) to deliver optimal results. No doubt this affected performance slightly, though the difference between a few points of AF fine tune was extremely minimal.
I found a tiny bit of lateral chromatic aberration, and almost no longitudinal chromatic aberration – a very good performance. If you enable CA removal in ACR, it goes away completely. Bokeh was clean and smooth, with no traces of spherochromatism or hard edges. I did see some very minor double-image effects if there happened to be tight repeating patterns in the scene, but it was never really distracting. Colors are neutral and saturated, with high macrocontrast and moderately high microcontrast; it’s not as good as a prime, but that’s to be expected given the complexity of the optical design. Overall, I’d rate optical performance as excellent – especially so given the lens’ range. It certainly earns a place on the ‘recommended lenses for D800E’ list.
As with all of Nikon’s Nano-Crystal coated lenses, flare performance was excellent, maintaining good contrast even when shot into the sun. However, with this many elements, the coatings are only going to go so far in preserving transmission; compared to the 400/2.8 at any given aperture, it seems to lose 1/3-1/2 stop. There’s also some minor vignetting wide open, especially visible at 400mm. Overall though, the optics are surprisingly good: more than up to the task of matching the resolving power of the D800E. I’d be interested to try the lens with one of the 24MP DX bodies to get a better idea of resolving power at even higher pixel densities, but that will have to wait until I have a suitable camera.
In my mind, the 80-400 has several alternatives in roughly the same range: the 70-200/2.8 II with 2x teleconverter; the 70-300/4.5-5.6 VR G; and finally, the 200-400/4. The first option is about the same size and weight (including the converter, smaller without) and gives you another two stops if you don’t need the reach; however, the optics are nowhere near as good as the 80-400. The second option is the lightest and cheapest of the lot, but it has a significantly slower T stop and experiences a noticeable drop in resolving power above 200mm. The final lens is even larger, heavier and more expensive; it’s a ‘proper’ supertele in the same all-magnesium, super-high end build and fast AF mould as the rest of the fast exotics (the 80-400 has a lot of plastics in its external components, presumably to keep weight and cost down); you gain a stop, but boy, does your back pay for it.
One last note on focus breathing: the lens focuses much closer than its predecessor with seemingly not much penalty in size – this is because the lens also shortens its real focal length as it focuses closer, similar to the 70-200/2.8 II vs the original 70-200/2.8. Even at infinity, the true focal length seems closer to about 380-390mm than 400mm (as compared to the 400/2.8, which is 400mm everywhere). At minimum focus distance, I think it’s closer to 330mm; you can see this in the difference in magnification: the old lens gives you a maximum of about 1:4.8 at 2.5m, vs 1:5.7 at 1.7m for the new lens. This might be significant if you don’t want to get too close to whatever it is you’re photographing.
The obvious question is who is this lens for? Indoor sport is out, for two reasons – firstly, the aperture is too slow to freeze action easily unless you’re willing to explore the H-settings on a D3s or D4; secondly, you’re probably going to be frustrated with the focus limits. Outdoor sport – motorsport, for instance – is a pretty good fit; if you’ve got moderately bright sunlight, you’ll get sufficient shutter speeds, and since everything happens further away than 6m, you’ll have extremely snappy focusing, too. What I haven’t mentioned up to this point is that although you should really be using a tripod or at least a monopod for optimal sharpness, you can handhold this lens quite effectively – unlike the 200-400/4 – if you have decent technique and breathing control (at least at 400mm); on a DX body this may be a little different as you’ve effectively got 600mm. Personally, I’d use it on a monopod.
It certainly works for wildlife, as the images illustrating this article demonstrate; however, you’ll either have to use a DX body to get enough reach for birding (the D7100 with its wide-area 51-point coverage would be ideal, I think), DX crop mode, or use teleconverters. The 80-400 is compatible with all of the new TC-E models, though you’re going to lose AF once the working aperture gets smaller than f8. I have no idea what the optical quality of the results is going to be like, as I don’t have any teleconverters handy. I would imagine that it would work quite well with the 1.4x, acceptable with the 1.7x, and don’t bother with the 2x; the 2x takes you down to f11, and by that point you’re already diffraction limited on most of the new high resolution bodies. The naked lens would be just the ticket for a safari, however; decent flexibility, and reach in a pinch. Now, to find the time and money for a trip to Africa…MT
The Nikon AF-S 80-400/4.5-5.6 G ED VR II N is available here from B&H
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