Lens Sharpness and Contrast
As you may already know, there is always a trade-off between versatility and sharpness when comparing zoom and prime lenses. However, some zoom lenses truly shine, providing incredible sharpness results at particular focal lengths and apertures. That’s the case with the 180-400mm. Let’s take a look at how this lens performed in our lab tests. Below are the MTF charts detailing lens performance at different focal lengths, as measured by Imatest:
As you can see, the sharpness performance of the 180-400mm f/4E is stellar at the wide end. At f/4, the lens is as sharp as some of Nikon’s finest high-end super telephotos. Stopping down the lens only diminishes the center performance, but if you want sharp corners, you will need to stop down a little.
As you zoom in towards 200mm, there is a very slight sharpness drop in the center, but overall, the sharpness stays consistently good.
Unfortunately, the 180-400mm f/4E shows weaker performance towards the long range. At 300mm, we see decreased sharpness throughout the frame. Note that the corners also get a bit weaker here.
Interestingly, the lens does not get significantly worse at 400mm, which is something I did not expect to see. It is still an incredibly sharp lens.
When it comes to contrast, the 180-400mm f/4E delivers exceptionally high levels of contrast throughout its focal length range. The lens shows very little loss of contrast wide open, but it is barely noticeable. I did not see any significant issues with focus shift on my sample, so testing the lens was a breeze.
Overall, the sharpness figures for the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E look very impressive. I did not expect to see such consistent performance from a zoom lens.
A more detailed comparison of this lens is provided on the next page of the review.
Performance with the built-in 1.4x Teleconverter
Personally, I have never been a fan of using teleconverters on my 200-400mm f/4G VR II. While the TC-14E III was OK in some situations, it was a rather frustrating experience when it comes to the loss of sharpness and AF accuracy, especially when focusing on distant subjects. With Nikon including a 1.4x teleconverter into the lens, you might be wondering how much sharpness is lost when it is engaged. Let’s take a closer look at how the lens performed at the long end (560mm):
As expected, there is a pretty noticeable drop in sharpness when using the built-in teleconverter. We can see roughly a 19% degradation in center sharpness at f/5.6. While stopping down the lens improves center sharpness a little, the teleconverter combined with lens diffraction prevents the lens from resolving more details.
While some photographers claim that there is no visible penalty when using the built-in 1.4x teleconverter, anyone who has used this lens extensively will tell you that those statements are false. And our lab tests confirm this.
Does it mean that you cannot take any sharp photos with the teleconverter activated? Of course not – the combo is still plenty sharp! Take a look at the below image of a sparrow, captured by John Lawson wide open at f/5.6:
The resolving power is certainly good enough, as evidenced by all the feather details. You can get quite a bit out of this combo, especially if you are willing to work with sharpening the image a little more in post-processing software.
What about focus speed and accuracy when using the 1.4x TC? In bright light, there is no noticeable penalty to AF performance that I could notice. However, in low-light situations, the AF performance is certainly degraded with the TC engaged. John Lawson confirmed this with his 180-400mm lens sample.
Important Usability Tip: Disengage the 1.4x TC when shooting at focal lengths below 400mm – there is no point in losing image quality when you don’t need the extra reach!
Performance with the Nikon TC-17E II and TC-20E III Teleconverters
As with the 200-400mm f/4G, do not expect the 180-400mm f/4E to work well with any other teleconverter. The TC-17E II and TC-20E III both result in very soft images, even when stopped down – you are better off shooting with the built-in TC and cropping instead.
I tried to mount the TC-14E III on the 180-400mm to see how well it would do. This combo with the 1.4x enabled would essentially result in a 353-784mm f/8 lens. As I added the teleconverter, it was immediately obvious that this combination would result in very soft images. I tried to focus with the lens mounted on a tripod, and it was extremely soft and unusable. I did not even bother trying to measure its performance.
Some people report decent results with the TC-17E II when stopped down to f/9, but I personally could not get anything good out of it. Autofocus accuracy was also all over the place.
Overall, I strongly recommend against using any teleconverters with the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E, other than the built-in 1.4x TC.
As expected, the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is able to yield beautiful bokeh, and its subject isolation capabilities are superb. Thanks to its short minimum focus distance of just 2 meters, the lens is also an excellent candidate for close-up photography and portraiture. When shooting at long focal lengths, you are also dealing with background objects appearing much more out of focus and closer, allowing subjects to stay beautifully isolated from the background. Just like its predecessor, the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E is excellent at this – it produces exceptionally good-looking background blur, whether you shoot wide open or stopped down, thanks to its 9-blade rounded diaphragm.
When the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E was first released, many owners of this lens complained about the horrendous vignetting issues they were seeing with the lens, especially when shooting with VR on. As it turned out, it was a bug in lens firmware that caused severe vignetting. Thankfully, Nikon issued a firmware update v1.01 that addressed this problem. After that firmware update, another issue was reported regarding AF tracking issues in some situations, which was addressed in the subsequent firmware update v1.02. Make sure that you update your lens firmware to v1.02 as soon as possible, which you can download from this link.
Let’s take a look at how the lens performed in terms of vignetting at different apertures and focal lengths:
As you can see, the lens certainly shows some vignetting wide open at all focal lengths. Imatest measured around 1.5 stops at most focal lengths. Once stopped down to f/5.6, vignetting is reduced quite a bit and it almost disappears past f/8.
If you are bothered by vignetting and you use software like Lightroom or Capture One, simply enable lens corrections, and the issues should be taken care of automatically.
Lateral chromatic aberration is reasonably good, although it is still noticeably higher than on super-telephoto primes like the 600mm f/4E FL ED VR. The lens shows close to two pixels of lateral CA at 200mm, which is the highest level when compared to other focal lengths. The lowest level of lateral CA is at the longest end of 400mm, as shown in the below chart:
Using the built-in teleconverter increases lateral CA significantly to the 1.83 pixel range on the long end at 560mm.
Ghosting and Flare
Due to the fact that all super-telephoto lenses suffer from heavy ghosting and flare issues, manufacturers always provide long lens hoods with them. The Nikon 180-400mm f/4E comes with the HK-41 carbon fiber lens hood, which easily snaps on the lens – you should keep it mounted at all times, or you will encounter all kinds of issues with ghosting and flare in the field. While Nikon did a terrific job with all the best coatings for the 180-400mm f/4E including Super Integrated and Nano Crystal Coating, you do not want light rays from bright sources of light reaching the front element, or you will see all kinds of problems in your photos. Keep this in mind when shooting, and avoid pointing your lens at the sun. You can actually get blind from doing this when using a DSLR because everything is so magnified.
Distortion is usually not a problem on super-telephoto lenses, although zoom lenses often show quite a bit of it at different focal lengths. Imatest measured minimal barrel distortion at 180mm, which switches to pincushion distortion at 250mm. There is a visible amount of pincushion distortion at both 300mm and 400mm focal lengths, as shown in the below chart:
Although I doubt this lens is ever going to be used for photographing straight lines, if this is something you are concerned with, it is something you can easily fix in Photoshop or Lightroom using the Lens Correction module.
Let’s move on to lens comparisons.
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