Nikon 400mm f/2.8G ED VR AF-S Lens Review

"I am easily satisfied with the very best." —Winston Churchill

Note: the current version of this lens is the f/2.8E FL. Pretty much everything I write here applies to it, as well, though the FL is 820g lighter and it focuses 0.1m closer. 

PROD SHOT Nikkor400mm 2166

What is it?
The Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G is a big lens, third biggest in Nikon's basic lineup (you can special order even bigger lenses, but who amongst you are doing that, let alone expecting me to review them?). A whopping 10 pounds (4620g) of magnesium, glass, and grippy rubber, the 6" diameter front element is all you need to look at to get the message: this is a serious lens with a serious amount of glass in it.

14 elements in 11 lens groups, to be exact. Three of them are ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements that help keep chromatic aberrations at bay. There's Nano coating to enhance contrast, and the front element is actually a meniscus glass element that's actually a protective piece, not really part of the optical formula. It's curved to prevent bounce-back flare from occurring within the lens. The lens is SIC (super integrated coating) as well, and features internal focus (why Nikon dropped the IR in their names, I don't know (maybe it was me and others poking fun of the acronym pile up); in the olden days this would have been referred to as ED IF VR). If you don't believe this is a serious lens, one look at the MTF chart will convince you: the 10 line per mm plot is a straight line at just about 1 (as good as it gets), the 30 line per mm plot is a nearly straight line at .9 (still about as good as it gets).

The lens covers both DX and FX formats, presenting a 4 degree angle of view (diagonally) on DX, 6°10' on FX. Close focus is 9.5 feet (2.9m), presenting a maximum magnification of 1:6.25. VR II features better detection of tripod/steady support; Nikon claims four stops improvement over hand holding. A rotating tripod collar with removable handle is included, as well as a 52mm drop-in filter cover. As with all Nikon drop-in filters, the supplied plain filter is part of the optical formula; using a filter holder without glass is a slight no-no. The lens has a focus scale with FX DOF markings for f/22 (in other words, nothing you'll ever use). There's dust/moisture protection built in.

The lens came in the traditional hard shell exotic Nikkor case with two-part hood for US$9549 when I first reviewed it in 2011. The lens is made in Japan.

Source of the reviewed lens: purchased

How's it Handle?
Once your Sherpa has unpacked the lens from carrying it up the mountain for you and placed it on your full Wimberley mount sitting atop your Gitzo GT5 series or better legs, it handles like warm melted butter on toast. Oh, you don't have a Sherpa? You aren't using a gimbal head? You only have GT2 series legs? Then you're still huffing your way up the mountain and when you do finally get there you're going to have a difficult time framing action or keeping the lens steady.

Seriously, folks, this is a serious lens. You don't spend the price of really good used car on the lens and then skimp on the rest. First up, you need to fix Nikon's tripod mount. You'll want something like the Really Right Stuff Arca foot or Kirk Quick Release Lens Plate for the 400mm. I personally use that short handle because handles like Nikon supplies put an odd center of gravity on your eventual set up and compromise the stability. Nikon's handle at least has a rounded grip so it doesn't cut into your hand while carrying the beast, but it's more awkward than it has to be. 

Speaking of stability, you're going to need to crank down the tripod collar lock as hard as you can. Failure to do that results in just enough slop to mess up ultimate acuity. Unfortunately, that means that you take more time than you should to move between horizontal and vertical setups. If any Nikon engineers are reading this, hear me loudly: you've pretty much messed up every tripod collar on telephoto lenses in recent history. I shouldn't be able to hit the top of the lens hood and get any up/down in the lens, yet I can on virtually every lens you've made recently, including the 400mm. What most of us end up doing is putting downward pressure with our hand on top of the lens at the tripod collar point. Fortunately, I can do that and still twirl the focus ring with the tips of my fingers.

When I first got my 400mm, the focus ring was very smooth. Today, after enough airline miles to get premium status coupled with excessive four-wheeling miles, the focus ring is still good, but has a bit of slop to it. The ring is wide and easy to find, and there are focus buttons (lock/recall/AF-On) circling the lens at the front of the ring. I find that position a little awkward due to my hand position (holding down the lens due to the tripod collar slop).

Personally, I dislike the rotating VR on/off switch. While easy enough to find at the back of the lens, for some reason this design has me missing the VR setting I really want to use more often than the plain old switch does. Part of that may be orientation. If you orient so the focus scale is up, the VR switch is off to the right just enough that you don't see it looking down at the lens. Of course, if you're shooting at eye-level, you wouldn't look down at the focus scale without getting on your tip-toes, but the VR switch is not exactly on the side, either. It's just a position that doesn't fall naturally into my view, so I sometimes don't notice what I'm shooting at; I have to make a conscious effort to remember to check VR status. Hello, Nikon? Why isn't VR status reported on the camera somewhere?

We've got five switches on the opposite side of the lens (one controlling type of VR). The lens now has A/M and M/A (which allow you to pick how manual override happens versus autofocus), which is a nice nuance. The most useful of the five switches is the focus limiter, which allows you to restrict the lens to 6m to infinity. For longer distance shooting, such as birds in flight, this can make the difference between lots of in-focus images and lots of out-of-focus images. I'd quibble about the 6m fixed limit. I'd really like to be able to set the point anywhere between 4m and 10m. The final two buttons are mostly to do with the focus buttons at the front of the lens. You can set and recall a fixed focus distance (an undervalued feature but one that's currently tough to remember how to use most effectively in the field). Or you can have the button provide AF-On or AF Lock. You can also have the lens beep confirmations to you. Put another way, the 400mm lens has a number of subtle customizations you can make to how it operates, and those changes can impact the speed of operation and/or image quality in subtle ways, too. Take the time to study the top four buttons carefully and figure out how they interact with your shooting.

I've seen people try to hand hold the 400mm, and it isn't pretty. Perhaps if you've been doing the body building thing trying to make yourself into a Rambo or Terminator you can do it. But for me, I can't do it for more than a shot or two, and even then it's awkward. On a good monopod or tripod with the right head and foot, the handling issues seem to melt away. Once you've got the 400mm set correctly in a good gimbal on the right legs, you hardly notice the size or weight of the lens (but keep that hand up top with downward pressure).

The lens hood for the 400mm is a two-parter, which makes for a collapsed carrying that's nice. As usual, Nikon provides their hangman's hood instead of a proper lens cap. My preferred lens cap is the Aqua-tech SoftCap because it not only provides a slight cushion when setting the lens down, but it pulls off with a convenient embedded hand grip very easily. The other optional lens caps out there all tend work better than what Nikon supplies. Rounding out the features of the lens are two shoulder strap hooks for those of you who want to sling the lens old style (new style would be using a Blackrapid strap hooked to an Arca Swiss foot).

All of which makes me wonder whether anyone involved with the design of the lens actually shoots with it. Optically, this lens is a star, and unmatched by anything else. But in practice, the sloppy tripod collar, awkward fabric hood, cryptic controls all take a slight edge off of delivering that unmatched image quality.

How's it Perform?
If you've been paying attention, you know what I'm about to write. I don't need to show charts or get very specific: the 400mm f/2.8G is, as far as I'm concerned, at the top of the Nikon exotics. The 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, and 400mm f/2.8 are all superb lenses. Scrap that: beyond superb. Stunningly sharp and contrasty wide open, with only a hint of falloff in the corners. They're designed to be used at the widest aperture.

Focus is fast and reliable on the high-end bodies, and if you're thinking about using this lens on a low-end body, get real. It'll work, but what are you thinking? With birds in flight and sports, it's not the lens' focusing attributes that'll hold you back, it's how you set and use the camera's focus system (and to a lesser degree, the settings on the lens, too). I've got long sequences of razor sharp images of moving objects at distance, like this one:

INT Japan 2010 D3x 08827

If the 400mm has a weakness, it's infinity focus. This seems typical of the whole Nikon exotic line, but while the 400mm is pretty good at infinity, it's just not as snappy as it is at 100 yards or 200 yards or wherever else you've focused that's not infinity. This isn't the same as the problem I note on the 200-400mm: the 400mm f/2.8G doesn't get weak on anything past 100 meters as the 200-400mm does. But it is slightly weaker at infinity than it is at 200 meters. Typically, though, you're not shooting at infinity (heat waves make that impossible much of the time, anyway).

I've shot with my 400mm all over the world now: Eagles on the ice between Japan and Russia, lions in Africa, Geese in the US, and much more. I've used it in sports shooting, including some shooting under lousy lights, and I've used it for the occasional odd landscape shot. I've never been disappointed with the results. Do you know how good a woman would have to be for me to say that about her? I've never been disappointed by the lens.

INT Japan 2010 D3x 04136

I would strongly recommend that you run AF Fine Tune with some sort of known tool, such as Lens Align, if you're serious about getting everything this lens can deliver. Given that it's a fixed focal length lens, alignment is easy enough to do. I personally tend to perform an AF Fine Tune check prior to every trip on which I use this lens (I have that awkward problem of not usually using the same body twice, but even the same body can get out of alignment with much travel).

The 1.4x and 1.7x TC's work very well on this lens (560mm and 680mm respectively). I'm not afraid to put either on the lens, though I will try to stop down the 1.7x a stop if I can. The 2x TC, even the new one, I'm a little reluctant about. You'll note a drop in focus speed, for one thing. And surprisingly, my 1.7x gives me slightly better results than the new 2x. Still, if I absolutely needed 800mm, I'm not afraid of the TC-20E III, either. The combination is far better than the non-existent 800mm lens Nikon doesn't make ;~).

Update: Some want to know how this lens works on a D850. It works just fine. This is one of those lenses that the camera resolution hasn't caught up to.

Final Word
Here's the question that I usually get: which should I get, the 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm? From an acuity standpoint, the 400mm is the best of that bunch, and clearly so. The 400mm with the TC-14E is pretty darned close to the 600mm f/4 (disclaimer: I've only used Nikon NPS 600mm loaners; make of that what you will, but those lenses get used and abused by a lot of photographers, so I'm not sure I've seen the best the 600mm can produce). I tend to rule out the 600mm for all but the absolutely focal length obsessed (you know who you are, and you like little birdies ;~).

My assistant and I argued about which lens for some time. He chose the 500mm for reach, I chose the 400mm for acuity. I'm still pretty sure that the 400mm is the right choice for me. But I pay the size/weight penalty for that decision. It's not a lens that's easy to travel with. If you're hopping on planes all the time to exotic locations, the 200-400mm and even the 500mm are much more manageable lenses.

One final note: this review is of the latest and greatest version of the 400mm f/2.8. I've used all the predecessors (mostly through rentals), all the way back to the old AF-I version. The differences are subtle. The current version has a slightly more sophisticated VR system and Nano coating, and those can make a very small difference in some situations. But if you're looking for a bargain, any of the older AF-I or AF-S versions in excellent shape used may save you some money.

Fiscal Reality
US$9000+ for a lens was a lot of moolah. If you can find a good one used copy, it's still going to set you back quite a bit of money, as this lens was and is a great performer. A three week rental on this lens was about US$1000 (plus shipping). A one-week rental is about half that. So, the question you have to ask yourself is how much you actually shoot with such a beast. If you make one long trip a year to a workshop or favorite location where this lens is going to get used, you're better off renting. Just give yourself enough lead time to test a rental lens before the trip (and maybe do an AF Fine Tune). I'd also suggest you rent the lens prior to purchasing it and really try it in practice. This is a lot of lens to handle, and frankly, not everyone is up to it.

There's another "secret" way to get experience with such exotic lenses before purchasing them: attend a workshop where Nikon NPS brings loaners. For example, Rich Clarkson's Sports Photography Workshop each summer in Colorado Springs, which is one of two sports workshops that I highly recommend (the other is Peter Read Miller's, but he has Canon loaner equipment at his ;~). You can find such things (sort of) using the Event Support tab on the global NPS site.

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