Which Long Telephoto Zoom?

Nikon's put a lot of work into this category—and into the 70-200mm zooms that sit just below it. We now have:

  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P
  • 80-400mm f/4-5.6G 
  • 180-400mm f/4E
  • 200-500mm f/5.6E

Add the older 70-300mm, 80-400mm (non AF-S), and 200-400mm—all of which tend to still be available new—and you've got a lot of choice. But frankly, the choice is simple if quality is what you seek.

  • Carry-around and handhold: the new 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E is the clear choice if you've got a modern Nikon DSLR that supports AF-P. It's one of the best bargains in the Nikon pantry, particularly when if it goes on sale (the list price was lowered in 2018). Clearly better than the older lens it replaces, it's also slightly better than the 80-400mm at 300mm. On DX bodies, the only thing you'll dislike is the f/5.6 at the long end.
  • Budget telephoto: Don't want to buy one of the prime exotics? Then the 200-500mm f/5.6E is your choice. It's not perfect, but it's arguably better than any other lens even close to its price range. A good copy is optically excellent for its bargain basement price, and frankly comes far closer to the exotics than you have any right to expect. It's optically better at 400mm than the 80-400mm. The downside is it's big and heavy, and the zoom ring is awkward.
  • Price is no object: Shooting with a rental copy of the 180-400mm f/4E for a bit and looking at what other pros are capturing with it, seems to indicate that it is the best zoom you're going to get through that range. With a flick of a switch, it'll become a 252-560mm f/5.6 that's also quite good. It doesn't seem infinity averse as was the 200-400mm f/4G it replaces, it's a really sharp lens at all distances. (But to be clear, this is still an initial assessment based on somewhat more limited experience with the lens.)

The 80-400mm is the loser in this race. That older lens is actually quite good up to about 300mm, but it starts losing its punch beyond that. I haven't quite abandoned mine, as it's more hand-holdable than the 200-500mm, but I'm far less thrilled with it given the budget telephoto zoom lenses Nikon has put out after it. We really need a 100-400mm f/4-5.6E AF-P now. 

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