Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR Lens Review

Nikkor80-400mmG.jpg

What is it?

The 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR is one of the most awaited lenses in the Nikkor lineup. While Canon users have long had an in-lens motor option that gets them to 400mm, the Nikon crowd waited, and waited, gave up, then waited some more, and all the time were picked on by Canon bullies "hey Nikon user, where's your AF-S 400mm?" 

Okay that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it sure felt that way to many. The "80-400mm replacement" was on my Nikon Wish List for over five years, and I'd long given up trying to explain why Nikon hadn't still gotten around to it. 

We've had tantalizing hints along the way. Nikon patented a number of 80-400mm, 100-400mm, and even 100-500mm designs before the new 80-400mm finally saw the light of day. 

So let's describe what we've got here, and what's new. Look at the names:

  • old: 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D AF ED VR 
  • new: 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR


That pretty much says it all: we've dropped the aperture ring (D -> G), and we've added an in-lens focus motor (AF -> AF-S). Of course the old lens was 17 elements in 13 groups, while the new lens is 20 elements in 12 groups. Plus there's Nano coating on the new lens. The lens also gained a half pound in weight and 1.3" in length, so it's bigger and heavier, too.

The lens has a distance scale, but no depth of field or infrared markings. The focus ring is closest to the camera, the wider zoom ring up front.

Five switches adorn the left side of the lens:

  • A/M, M/A, M (the usual focus settings for a high-end AF-S lens)
  • Full, Infinity-6m (focus range limiter)
  • VR On, Off
  • VR Normal, Active
  • Lock zoom ring


We still have 77mm filter rings up front, and we have a rotating, removable tripod collar with mounting foot. A rubber gasket for weather sealing is at the mount, though Nikon doesn't make any specific weather proofing claims for the lens. 

The lens comes with a padded soft case and an HB-65 bayonet lens hood that's deep and fully covers the front element from stray light. The lens is made in Japan.

How's it Handle?

Once again we have the "must look can't feel" problem. With five switches on the left side of the barrel, you can't tell them apart by feel while looking through the viewfinder. Thus, you have to memorize which one is which. To Nikon's credit, they've tended to keep the order the same across lenses, but some lenses have only two, some three, and still others have more switches, so you also have to remember which lens you're using to remember which switch is which. 

Technically, there is a difference. The Focus switch has a raised end, the VR switch a raised middle. No offense to the blind, but these differences are about as subtle as braille is to a sighted person: not distinctive enough. Moreover, why do four of the switches have middle bumps, and one an end bump? Too subtle, Nikon. 

The lens has a switch to lock it at 80mm to avoid zoom creep, a useful touch, but you have to remember that it's at the bottom of the lens where you can't usually see it. 

The zoom ring is smooth and resistant to change, and goes from 80 to 400mm in about a quarter turn. Nothing wrong there. The focus ring is about the same, and also goes from minimum to maximum focus in about a quarter turn. Long time AF-S overriders will have to get used to the focus ring being the one closest to the camera body, though.

The tripod collar, as usual for Nikon in the last two decades, leaves a bit to be desired. It's removable, which is nice if you're going to be hand-holding the lens, but it's the same old design Nikon has been replicating that requires you really tighten down the lock knob as much as possible in order to take all movement out. If you leave the knob even one iota lose, there is slop in the connection and mirror slap will move the lens during the shot. 

The mounting foot is also short and at a questionable balance point. Light bodies (the consumer DX bodies, for example), will find that the center of gravity is forward of the foot. As usual, the third parties are quick to provide better answers (the Kirk NC-80-400GN and the Really Right Stuff LC-A13, for example). Indeed, if you were paying attention, you'll see that the image, above, has the Kirk version substituted for Nikon's. Notice how it has a built-in Arca-style plate and a front support that basically guarantees that the whole thing forms a secure lens coupling in two places. 

A lot of folk complained when Nikon made the tripod collar optional on the 70-200mm f/4, but I have the opposite opinion: maybe Nikon should just stop making tripod collars and let the third parties do it right. Or at least "righter." I really don't want to keep paying Nikon for something that I end up replacing. 

The lens hood reverse bayonets onto the lens. However, in so doing, you lose access to the zoom ring. The anal retentive amongst you would have already zoomed the lens back to 80mm and locked it before putting the lens hood on reversed, and you'd obviously invert the process when getting ready to use the lens. Not everyone is OCD, however. Not a big deal, I know, but it's becoming common practice amongst all the camera makers to do this (zoom ring moved forward and under the reversed hood). I don't happen to like it, but I could be in a minority here.

The heavier weight of the lens makes it ironically a bit more of an odd duck on the new group of cameras it supports (the D40, D40x, D60, D3000, D3100, D3200, D5000, D5100, and D5200). These bodies are all light, so you have a very front-heavy situation where you'd darn well better get your hand under the lens to support it. The natural spot will be the zoom ring. 

On the big body pro cameras, the combo is more balanced between lens and body. Technically, if you've got a grip of steel you can get away with not putting your hand under the lens to support it, but you've still got a lot of weight forward of the lens mount. 

Where the difference really shows up is on a gimbal head. It's tough to find balance without an extended plate if you're using a very light body; the Nikon-chosen point seems more suited for the pro bodies. 

  

How's it Perform?

Focus — This is what we were waiting for. The focus performance is exactly what we expect from an AF-S lens: fast, precise, and good at tracking, even speedy objects. This alone would have been worth upgrading to (though not for the big price increase), but fortunately it's not the only change.

Update: A number of people have asked me about "chatter." This is one term that gets commonly used to describe the situation where you obtain focus on a distant object but then the focus shifts away and back as if the lens is still hunting for the focus point. I can't say that I've actually seen any chatter in my sample of the lens. The few times I've seen this are instances where the subject itself isn't perfectly still. In those cases, the 80-400mm does seem to chatter more than the 200-400mm. 

VR — I no longer have the old lens to do one-on-one tests against, but Nikon lists the old VR as being 2 stops improvement under CIPA testing, and the new version 4 stops. While there have been reports of disappointment from some with the VR handling of the new lens, I can't really find any fault: it performs about as I would expect. 

DX Optical Performance (D7100 tests) — On a DX body, the lens is nearly flawless. Sharp edge to edge, even wide open. Not perfectly sharp, mind you, but close enough to gauge it as excellent wide open. There's really not a lot different from corner to corner at wide open out until diffraction starts taking away acuity. The worst performance is probably in the 250-350mm range, but "worst" in this context means "measures slightly worse" in MTF testing. I see some slightly wavy differences across the frame, but frankly, as such low levels it's not really worth discussing. 

Vignetting, as you might expect, is minimal wide open, and basically ignorable. Surprisingly, so is distortion. There's a very slight tendency towards pincushion distortion, but I mean it when I say slight. Generally not enough that I'm compelled to try to correct it. 

Chromatic aberration is present and visible. Most Nikon cameras correct this in JPEG shooting (or have controls you can use to turn correction on), and most raw converters will eradicate the modest CA this lens produces.

FX Optical Performance (D800 tests) — On an FX body, things change a bit. Optically, it's still a very good, probably excellent lens. The new version tests better than the old version by a clear margin. On FX I do see some edge falloff, though not like you see on a number of lenses, even venerable ones like the 70-200mm f/2.8G II. I can see from the edge results that the elements are slightly mis-centered or the design isn't quite centered, as the right edge seems a bit worse than the left, and the "center spot" (best results) is slightly high and to the left. (High seems to be a "norm" for Nikon, "left" isn't.) 

Still, even at their worst, the edges aren't bad, they're just less good than the center. Up to about 200mm, I'd even characterize the results similar to DX: basically usable edge to edge without concern. And stopped down two stops, the lens is definitely edge-to-edge sharp up to 200mm.

Above 200mm, the results deteriorate substantially at the corners above 200mm, though again, not what I'd characterize as "bad." Stopping down two stops brings the edges back very near the center, and the lens at 400mm f/11 is remarkably good. Not quite "exotic" good (e.g. the 400mm f/2.8), but considering the price differential, much close than you'd expect. 

Vignetting is present in modest form at all focal lengths wide open. By modest, I mean perhaps a half stop average at the edges. As with many Nikkors, this is slightly biased upwards in the frame (i.e. the two bottom corners have a bigger darkness area than the top). Not enough vignetting to worry about, though. 

Chromatic aberration is present and visible. All the FX Nikon bodies can correct this in JPEGs, though I can see some combinations of aperture and focal length where there's still some CA present (typically smaller apertures at long focal lengths, which is a bit unusual). 

Linear distortion is still relatively low across the focal range, though a bit higher at longer focal lengths than shorter. The tendency is towards pin cushion.

Overall — The new version of this lens is a real winner. Virtually everything has been improved, and in many ways the old lens was a good performer to start with. 

I would have to say that Nikon has provided pretty much what everyone asked for: add AF-S focus performance, update the VR, and improve the optics (especially at 400mm). I actually have a hard time imagining better optical performance from a lens of this type. 80-400mm is 5x, and generally once you get beyond 2-3x in focal range, it's extremely difficult to keep performance high and within a narrow margin from edge to edge. Yet, Nikon has done almost exactly that with this lens. The vignetting and distortion improvements are also nice additions. It's really only chromatic aberration that didn't get totally under control in this redesign. Still the CA is mostly correctable, so I don't much fret over that. Bottom line: an excellent remake when performance is considered solely on its own.


Final Words

You get what you pay for, apparently. For US$1700 or so, you can have the older lens, which was a pretty decent lens, but lacking focus performance and a little soft at 400mm. For US$2700 of so, you can get the new version, which improves upon most everything optically and gives you the AF-S focus performance needed for tracking moving subjects. A US$1000 bump (60% increase) is a big one, obviously, and that has to come into account when considering this lens. 

But let's be realistic. If you're using a modern high-end DSLR (24mp+), the older version just doesn't cut it any more. Beyond the focus performance, the older version tended to fall apart above 300mm, and it had higher levels of chromatic aberration, as well. The reason to buy an 80-400mm over the 70-300mm tends to be 400mm anyway, so if the lens isn't performing great at 400mm, it's not pulling its weight. 

I'm happy to say the new lens has little to complain about. About the only weakness is once again the tripod collar. 

The real issue for most people in evaluating this lens is price and light. What do I mean by that? Well, f/5.6 at 400mm makes this mostly a bright light lens. Sunny 16 exposure says f/16 at 1/ISO, so in sun we can be at 1/800 at f/5.6 at ISO 100. Nothing wrong with that. It's at the edge of day or in deep shade that we find that we have to start bumping ISO up considerably to keep our shutter speeds up. 

So the price/light equation is something like this: the 200-400mm is a stop faster and rents for about US$40/day with week or longer rentals. We can rent one for about 10 weeks before we get to the price of the new 80-400mm. So how often do you really need 400mm, and how often is that in low enough light that you could use another stop of light? For many I'd say that renting the 200-400mm might be the financially smart decision. But if you've got US$2700 burning a hole in your wallet, I'm not going to fault you for buying the new 80-400mm. It's a fine lens.

Common questions: many who've read the review ask one of two questions: is the 80-400mm better than a 70-200mm with a teleconverter, and how are teleconverters on the 80-400mm? The answer to the first is that the 80-400mm at 400mm f/5.6 is better than the 70-200mm f/2.8 with a TC-20EIII at 400mm f/5.6. Definitely better at f/8. While everyone wants a "cheaper" solution, you get what you pay for. If 400mm is important to you, you need a lens that's designed for that use that performs well, period. 

As to the second question, the only teleconverter you can use on the 80-400mm is the TC-14E, and really only on the most recent bodies (D7100, D600, D800, D4), which support autofocus at f/8. You're at the margin with focus even with those cameras, and I detect some variability to the focus performance that wasn't quite there at 400mm f/5.6, even on the bodies that only accept f/5.6 for autofocus. Since you're using 560mm (with the TC) usually for distant things, even a small focus error can impair your results. I'd say that the owners of those cameras (D7100, D600, D800, D4) would pretty much always be better off selecting a crop setting on the camera instead of adding the TC-14E. 

A teleconverter is a convenience for which a price is always paid. See the teleconverter FAQ for more.

Recommended (Note: older D version no longer recommended)

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