Lens Sharpness and Contrast
The classic 400mm f/2.8G VR has always been regarded as one of the “reference” lenses for sharpness. It took Nikon many years to make it what it is today – a highly regarded work of art and engineering that delivers outstanding images to sports, action and wildlife photographers that need maximum sharpness for print. When Nikon released the replacement, I wondered if there was any room for improvement to sharpness in the already superb lens. I put both Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G VR and the 400mm f/2.8E VR to the test in my Imatest lab to see if changes in optical design were indeed visible. To say the least, I was blown away by what I saw! Take a look at the below result:
To say that the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR is good would be an understatement – it is stunning! If you are wondering how it compares to its predecessor, you will find a sharpness comparison below.
To understand how sharp this lens is, take a look at the below image of a great horned owl captured by John Lawson:
Now a mandatory 100% crop to see all the feather details:
That’s pretty crazy detail on a 36 MP Nikon D800E camera!
Performance with Nikon TC-14E III Teleconverter
As I have previously pointed out, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E VR works great with all Nikon teleconverters. Although the lens works well with both TC-14E II and the newest TC-14E III teleconverter, my testing revealed that the lens is optimized for the latter teleconverter, particularly in mid-frame and the corners. With the 1.4x magnification and a full stop of light loss, the lens becomes a 560mm f/4 lens. Let’s take a look at how the sharpness is impacted with the teleconverter:
Every lens performs differently with teleconverters, but in the case of the Nikon 400mm f/4E FL VR, there seems to be a small drop in sharpness when using the TC-14E III teleconverter. You will barely notice the TC-14E III is attached to your lens, as you practically won’t see its impact in images. There is a very small drop of contrast in images, which is also barely noticeable. Autofocus performance stays the same and AF accuracy and tracking look equally good with and without the teleconverter. Overall, the TC-14E III can pretty much stay glued to the lens due to having very little impact on image quality.
Performance with the Nikon TC-17E II Teleconverter
The Nikon TC-17E II has been a mixed bag for me for years, until Nikon made it usable again with the latest generation 51-point autofocus system. But that’s with several exceptions – I have had moderately good success with the teleconverter when using it with the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, 300mm f/2.8G VR II and 400mm f/2.8G VR lenses. When I coupled it with the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR, the teleconverter worked quite well, giving me 680mm of focal length at f/4.8. Wide open sharpness is quite good and stopping down to f/5.6 will improve sharpness slightly, as seen in the graph below:
As you can see, there is a definite impact on sharpness when using the TC-17E II, but it is not drastic. If you apply a little bit of sharpening in post, you can get excellent results. AF performance takes a slight hit in low-light situations, but it is not bad at all and certainly usable. Overall, there is a modest drop in sharpness in the center, which is quite normal and expected from the older teleconverter.
Performance with the Nikon TC-20E III Teleconverter
Lastly, let’s take a look at how the lens does with the TC-20E III – the latest generation 2x teleconverter that works reasonably well with a few Nikkor lenses. I performed a number of outdoor and indoor tests of the TC-20E III mounted on the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E VR and I can say that for situations where you need the reach, the TC-20E III delivers quite good results, as long as you have enough light and stop down a little. In low-light situations, this combination can start to hunt a little and AF accuracy is definitely impacted. But if you use it in good light, it is a very usable combination, especially for medium speed and low-speed subjects. Nothing surprising here, as we can observe the same behavior when using the teleconverter with the 300mm f/2.8 and other fast telephoto lenses. Here are the numbers I got from my lab measurements using Imatest:
The TC-20E III doubles the focal length of the 400mm lens to 800mm (400mm x 2) and slows it down by two full stops to f/5.6. Wide-open, the lens is rather soft, but stopping down to f/8 brings sharpness and contrast to quite good levels. There is roughly a 26% drop in sharpness, which is roughly what one can expect when using a 2x teleconverter. Again, applying some sharpening in post and down-sampling images a little can certainly yield acceptably sharp results. Overall, the TC-20E III is very usable on the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR, just like when used with its predecessor, as long as you use it in good light and stop down to f/8.
Here is a shot of an Abert’s Squirrel, captured with the TC-20E III by John Lawson:
Pretty impressive detail at 800mm and f/7.1!
One of the strengths of long telephoto lenses is the beautiful, creamy bokeh they are able to produce. At such 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 400mm f/2.8E VR is a bokeh champion – it produces exceptionally good-looking background blur, especially wide open at the maximum aperture of f/2.8. I primarily used the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E VR for birding and wildlife photography and I was stunned by the results. The bokeh looks creamy and beautiful and the lens does a superb job at isolating subjects at large apertures. Here is an example of subject isolation and bokeh for a bird shot at f/2.8:
And here is another example at f/4:
As you can also see from other images presented in this review, the lens renders backgrounds in a dreamy, beautiful style.
Vignetting / Light Falloff
Another good news is that Nikon optimized the lens for low levels of vignetting, particularly when shooting at close distances. Wide open, you only get a little over 1 EV of vignetting, which is negligible. For distant subjects near infinity, however, the lens certainly exhibits a good amount of vignetting, especially wide open, as shown in the below graph:
Here is the worst case scenario, showing the lens exhibit over 2 stops of vignetting in the corners, shot at infinity:
Vignetting is not always bad – in fact, some amount of vignetting at f/2.8 actually looks good when shooting wildlife, drawing the attention of the viewer to the subject. If you want to get rid of vignetting completely, a lens correction profile is already available for the 400mm f/2.8E VR lens and most other Nikon super-telephoto lenses in the latest version of Lightroom.
Lateral chromatic aberration is well under control, reaching superb levels that we usually see on standard focal length lenses. Teleconverters obviously exaggerate CA quite a bit by magnifying the effects and we can see that CA reaches pretty high levels at 800mm with the TC-20E III:
The good news is, lateral CA can be fixed in post using software like Lightroom and Photoshop.
Longitudinal chromatic aberration is also under control, although you will see slight discolorations in some areas, as demonstrated in the below image:
Ghosting and Flare
There is a reason why Nikon supplies such large hoods with its super-telephoto lenses – that’s because telephoto lenses generally do not do well with the sun or other bright objects reaching the front element of the lens. So, if you shoot against the sun, you might get some large, nasty flares and plenty of ghosting, which is quite normal. The integrated “Nano Crystal Coat” certainly helps to reduce ghosting and flare, but does not eliminate it. So keep this in mind when shooting and avoid pointing your lens at the sun – you can actually get blind from doing this because everything is so magnified.
Forget about distortion on the 400mm f/2.8 – it is practically non-existent. Imatest measured very slight barrel distortion at 0.42%, which is not something you would ever notice in images. Plus, I seriously doubt you would be shooting any straight lines with this lens. Distortion is generally not a problem, because it can be easily fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom using the Lens Correction module.
As I have already pointed out earlier, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR comes with the latest generation Vibration Reduction system that Nikon claims allows shooting with up to 4 times slower shutter speeds while retaining sharpness. While Vibration Reduction is a very nice feature on any lens, especially super-telephoto, you have to be careful about when to employ VR and how to use it in different situations. If not properly used, VR can actually hurt images and degrade image sharpness. This happens when photographers keep VR turned on all the time no matter what light conditions they are in and shoot away without letting VR stabilize.
The purpose of VR technology is to fight against different types of motion like hand motion or platform motion. To counter these motions, the lens detects movements and their direction, then makes internal movements against that motion. Hence, if you see a subject and just press the shutter without half-pressing it and letting the lens stabilize first, you might end up with softer images. Furthermore, it is important to understand that VR was designed to work in situations where the shutter speed drops to the point where lens/camera shake causes blur. It was not designed to be used with super-fast shutter speeds. If you were to shoot the 400mm f/2.8 hand-held at 1/1000 of a second without vibration reduction/image stabilization, you would rarely end up with blurry images, unless your subject or its parts move faster than 1/1000 of a second. So when should VR be used on such lenses as 400mm f/2.8? There are only few cases when using VR can help in getting sharper images:
- When shooting hand-held and shutter speed is slow enough to cause camera shake. Also to help with framing (VR: Normal).
- When shooting through a car window and resting the lens on the window, with a slow shutter speed (VR: Normal).
- When shooting on a tripod with a very slow shutter speed (VR: Normal).
- When shooting fast action hand-held or on a monopod or when shooting fast action while panning (VR: Sport).
Nikon has made changes to the VR system used on high-end telephoto lenses. Instead of a “Tripod” setting on the switch, there is now a new mode called “Sport”. This mode is particularly useful when shooting fast action and panning – the lens will automatically recognize such motion and provide compensation against camera shake. This mode is particularly useful if you want to shoot fast action and have panning blur, for instance when shooting car racing events. Nikon has made a video demonstrating differences between Normal and Sport modes in the following video:
In addition to the above benefits, the Sport mode also does not slow the camera down in terms of frames per second, while the normal mode can. You can read more about how VR technology works here.
Next up, let’s take a look at how this lens compares to others available today:
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