During the past few years, Nikon has been slowly replacing its high-end super telephoto lenses with newer technology using lightweight fluorite lens elements, shredding off a lot of weight and making additional improvements to lens designs, making the already strong lenses even better. After the 800mm f/5.6E VR monster, it was time for Nikon to update its legendary 400mm f/2.8G VR with the newer version, so that’s how the Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL VR came to life. Although Nikon is planning to update every super telephoto lens in its line-up with lighter lenses featuring fluorite elements (which includes the 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses), Nikon decided to start with the 400mm f/2.8, because it is one of the lenses that would get the most benefit from the fluorite lens design. Weighing in at a whopping 4.6 kg, the previous generation 400mm f/2.8G VR was a monster of a lens to handle and impractical to hand-hold (it was quite a bit front-heavy). Although it is quite a versatile lens and works remarkably well with all three Nikon teleconverters, its weight and size were its main disadvantages, making a lot of photographers opt for other super telephoto Nikkor lenses like the 500mm f/4 instead. The newly designed 400mm f/2.8E FL VR is a whole different lens in comparison – weighing 3.8 kg, the lens is now similar in weight as the 500mm f/4G VR, which is a great engineering achievement! Let’s take a closer look at this lens.
1) Lens Overview
Being a sports and action lens featuring fast autofocus silent wave motor, the 400mm f/2.8 is very popular among professionals – you will often see it actively used in national and world sports events such as Olympics, World Cup and Super Bowl, as well as in wildlife hot-spots and concerts around the world. Its large aperture of f/2.8, along with its complex optical design allow isolating subjects with a very shallow depth of field, beautifully rendering the out of focus highlights known as “bokeh“, while retaining maximum sharpness on the subject.
The 400mm f/2.8 is a very special lens compared to other super telephoto lenses in terms of versatility. Aside from the 300mm f/2.8, it is the only other lens with a fast f/2.8 aperture, which means that it is designed to be used with all three current Nikon teleconverters (TC-14E III, TC-17E II and TC-20E III), giving essentially four focal length options: 400mm, 560mm @ f/4, 680mm @ f/4.8 and 800mm @ f/5.6. Although teleconverters do steal quite a bit of light, even shooting with the 2x teleconverter only slows the lens down to f/5.6. The slower f/4 lenses are usually limited to be used with the 1.4x teleconverter and rarely do well with anything longer than that. With the newer Nikon DSLRs that have down to -3 EV sensitivity, some lenses can autofocus fine with the 1.7x teleconverter and even 2x teleconverter in good light, but usually with heavy implications on sharpness, as detailed in this article. In contrast, the 400mm f/2.8 lens works seamlessly with the 1.4x, very well with the 1.7x and quite well with the 2x, especially when stopped down a little. This makes the 400mm f/2.8 the most versatile of the bunch. And now that Nikon made the lens as light as the 500mm f/4, it has made the lens far more attractive…
The lens performs equally well on both FX and DX sensors, with a 1.5x narrower field of view on DX sensor, which is equivalent to 600mm without a teleconverter. This means that with a 2x teleconverter on a DX camera like the Nikon D7200, you would essentially have an equivalent field of view of 1200mm. At 1200mm, one would be challenged with keeping up with acceptably good sharpness for two reasons – atmospheric haze and vibrations due to lens / camera shake.
Let’s now talk about what has changed from the previous generation 400mm f/2.8G VR. Take a look at the below comparison of lens construction between the two lenses:
As you can see, the new 400mm f/2.8E VR is a totally different beast compared to its predecessor. Pay attention to the front part of the lens – the new construction has four elements, two of which are fluorite, with some space in between. And those fluorite elements are far lighter than regular glass elements! As I cover in the handling section of the review further down, this was a very smart move by Nikon engineers, because it moved the heavy weight from the front part of the lens and distributed it more evenly across the lens. What you don’t see in the above chart, is changes in the material used to hold those optical elements together – instead of using heavy stainless steel for the lens barrel, Nikon switched to tough, aircraft-grade magnesium alloy. The older 400mm f/2.8G VR was very front heavy, which is why it was such a challenge to hand-hold. The new 400mm f/2.8E is far more balanced and much easier to hand-hold as a result of these design changes. Also, pay attention to how Nikon moved the lens handle from the front of the lens to the back, which again indicates that the weight has been drastically shifted.
It is also worth noting that the rest of the lens went through additional changes in lens design. The previous generation 400mm f/2.8G VR had a total of 14 elements in 11 groups and the new 400mm f/2.8E VR has a total of 16 elements in 12 groups. These additional elements were added to correct more optical aberrations in order to yield sharper images with more contrast. The total number of Extra-low Dispersion (ED) elements went down from 3 to 2, but that does not mean that the sharpness was impacted – in fact, looking at the new 400mm f/2.8E VR MTF data, we can see that the sharpness is actually increased (Left: 400mm f/2.8E VR, Right: 400mm f/2.8G VR):
Pay attention to the second blue line, which has slightly moved up and straightened – an indication of better sharpness across the frame. See my guide on how to read MTF charts if you having a hard time understanding how these graphs work. So we can certainly expect better sharpness and as I show later on, the new 400mm f/2.8E VR indeed turned out to be sharper than its predecessor when I measured the performance of the two with Imatest.
2) Technical Specifications
Here are the technical specifications of the lens:
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length: 400mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
- Minimum Aperture f/22
- Format: FX/35mm
- Maximum Angle of View: (DX-format) 4°
- Maximum Angle of View: (FX-format) 6°10′
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.16x
- Lens Elements: 16
- Lens Groups: 12
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, FX in DX Crop Mode
- VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- Nano Crystal Coat: Yes
- ED Glass Elements: 2
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 8.53 ft. (2.6m)
- Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Manual/Auto, Auto/Manual
- G-type: Yes
- Filter Size: 40.5mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Slip-in
- Compatible with Nikon AF-S Teleconverters: Yes
- Dimensions (Approx.): 6.3 in. (159.5 mm) x 14.09 in. (358 mm)
- Weight (Approx.): 134 oz. (3,800g)
- Supplied Accessories: Slip-on HK-38 lens hood, CT-405 trunk case, NC 40.5 Neutral Color 40.5mm filter, LN-2 Lens Strap, LF-4 Rear Lens Cap
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with other useful data can be found in our lens database.
3) Lens Handling
Thanks to the changes in optical design using fluorite elements, along with the use of lightweight magnesium alloy as highlighted in this review, Nikon was able to take off over 800 grams of weight from the new 400mm f/2.8E VR, which is significant. But it is not only the lower weight that matters – the biggest change in my opinion is the shift of weight from the front of the element more evenly across the lens. This makes the new 400mm f/2.8E FL VR a much easier lens to hand-hold compared to its predecessor. In fact, the handling of the lens is now very similar, if not better, to that of the 500mm f/4G VR, which is preferred by many photographers for hand-holding. Many of the shots captured in this review by myself and other photographers were hand-held, which is a huge indication of this lens being much more practical in the field compared to its predecessor. My good friend John Lawson, an amazing wildlife photographer, who has been gracious enough to help out with a number of reviews of telephoto lenses here at PL told me “I never did get used to how light it is. It is certainly hand-holdable which I think is pretty incredible for a 400mm f/2.8 lens”, so he was equally surprised by how much more practical this lens for hand-holding.
Once you attach a teleconverter on the lens, hand-holding can get a bit tough due to dealing with much longer focal lengths. As you may already know, the longer the focal length and the narrower the effective field of view, the tougher it is to hand-hold a lens to get sharp results – even slight motion might result in blurry photos. This is where image stabilization, or in Nikon’s language “Vibration Reduction” kicks in. VR makes it much easier to hand-hold lenses, particularly for framing shots. By compensating movements of your hands, VR turns “jumpy” action into much smoother movements, allowing your eyes to see subjects better. Nikon bundled the latest version of vibration reduction to the 400mm f/2.8E lens, claiming up to 4 stops of compensation. The most important benefit of VR, however, is not how it helps you stabilize the shot for framing, but how it can actually help counter the movements in order to yield sharper images. Additional notes on VR and its effectiveness are provided below.
For prolonged use of the lens in the field, I would still recommend to mount it on a tripod, particularly when set to shoot from a set area – whether shooting from a spot in a football field, or an observation area in a wildlife hotspot. Ideally, you would want to use something like a Wimberley WH-200 gimbal head mounted on a sturdy tripod. Once you get the lens mounted and balanced on a gimbal head, turning it left/right or up/down is very easy and intuitive. If you want to stay more flexible, a ballhead like the RRS BH-55 on a heavy duty monopod would also work well.
Don’t forget to replace the provided foot with an Arca-Swiss version from RRS or Kirk. It still baffles me why Nikon, Canon and other manufacturers still provide useless tripod feet on these high-end lenses. Arca-Swiss has become a standard in the industry and it makes no sense to continue reusing these ancient tripod feet that cannot be properly mounted on any tripod. I cannot imagine fiddling with flimsy tripod adapters just to be able to mount these lenses and I am sure manufacturers are well aware of this problem. The last thing you want to do is mount a $12K lens on a $100 tripod setup. While the lens is well protected against occasional bumps, it might not survive a drop from a tripod, so keep this mind and invest in a good and stable tripod system. And if you want to really protect your lens against potential scratches, then I would recommend to get a LensCoat Lens Cover for it. I use LensCoat on my Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR and it certainly does a very good job at not only protecting the lens, but also in keeping my hands warm when shooting in colder temperatures. If you have a lighter camera body like the Nikon D750, I suggest attaching a camera grip for better balance.
The lens collar on the 400mm f/2.8E VR is much easier to rotate than on the 400mm f/2.8G VR and the 600mm f/4G VR lenses, which is a nice change. The collar on previous generation lenses has quite a lot of friction and although it rotates smoothly, it seems unnecessarily tight. The collar on the 400mm f/2.8E VR is a definite improvement, as noticed by both myself and John Lawson.
It goes without saying that the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E VR is a rugged professional lens designed to withstand physical abuse in all kinds of environments and tough weather conditions. Nikon specifically engineered its super telephoto lenses to be used and abused in the field, putting extra effort in properly sealing such lenses to withstand and repel dust and moisture. The front element of the lens is coated with the new fluorine coating material, which does not hold water droplets in place like regular glass does, allowing water, mud and other material to simply glide down from the surface of the lens. For sports and wildlife shooters working in the field in tough environments, this could be quite a positive change, as they would not have to worry about constantly looking at the front element to clean it in order to keep up with the image quality. Take a look at the below video, which explains the benefits of the new fluorine coating:
When Nikon first released its 800mm f/5.6 lens with fluorite elements, many photographers were worried about the delicacy of the lens element and its potential for cracks when used in extremely cold temperatures. Although even the first versions of fluorite glass were already tough (and Canon has been producing lenses with fluorite glass since 1960s), glass molding technology has only gotten better, which means that the fluorite elements used today in lenses are far less prone to potential issues. In reality, the only way one could get a fluorite lens to crack, would be to mix two extreme temperatures together – say by boiling a lens element in hot water, then putting it into ice water, or cooling the element to freezing temperature, then pouring hot boiling water on top. Since the first fluorite lens element is hidden behind a protective filter, unless you break that first piece of glass, the chance of getting the fluorite glass element subjected to such potential “experiments” is close to none. In nature, fluorite is tough and will not be prone to shattering to pieces if you drop a lens more than a regular glass element. Thus, you can use these new lenses with fluorite with confidence. To reduce chances of potentially scratching or breaking the front element and to reduce ghosting and flare, you should always be using the lens with the provided lens hood.
When it comes to manual focus operation, the focus ring is smooth and very easy to operate. When you move the focus ring and reach the focus limit, the ring continues rotation with little resistance in either direction. Unlike its predecessor that featured a separate VR ring to turn VR on and off, the new 400mm f/2.8E FL VR finally has a switch on the side of the lens. This is another great improvement to handling, because you can now switch VR mode operation without having to look down on the lens to see what position VR is on, or worrying about potentially breaking the mechanical ring. Another switch that I use and change on telephoto lenses is focus limiter. You can set it to “Full” or “∞-6m” marks, which stand for focusing from the minimum focus distance of 2.6 meters to infinity (Full) and from 6 meters to infinity (∞-6m). By default, mine is always set to the latter, because it saves a lot of time when the lens hunts for focus in challenging situations. When set to “Full”, telephoto lenses take almost twice longer to go from closest focus to infinity, while the focus limit switch restricts ability to focus on objects closer than 6 meters, eliminating the extra rotations that slow down autofocus. If you photograph subjects closer than 6 meters, then you will need to set the switch back to “Full” to allow the lens to focus. Speaking of minimum focus, Nikon’s newer optical design reduced the minimum focusing distance from 2.9 meters on the 400mm f/2.8G VR to 2.6 meters on the 400mm f/2.8E VR, so you can now get even closer to your subjects. The good news is that this change did not come with a “focus breathing” issue – I did not see differences in field of view between the older 400mm and the newer lens at varying distances.
The only handling complaint is the location of the focus lock buttons on the front barrel of the lens. They are positioned low and close to the focus ring so you have to watch your hand placement or while pressing the focus lock you can defocus the lens unintentionally. Not a big deal for those who do not rely on the focus lock button, but can be something to watch out for others.
Another positive ergonomic change is the newly designed HK-38 lens hood. Thankfully, you no longer have to fiddle with a two piece lens hood like on the 400mm f/2.8G VR lens, which will reduce the amount of time it takes to put the setup together when shooting in the field. To reduce flare and protect the front of the lens, I suggest leaving it on the lens at all times. If you need to put the hood away, reverse mounting the hood on the lens will work great. In fact, with the lens hood mounted in reverse, I was able to fit both in my Think Tank Airport Commuter backpack (see Tom Redd’s excellent review):
I know this looks silly, but I actually walked for quite a while with both 400mm f/2.8E VR and my 300mm f/4D AF-S lenses inside my backpack!
If transporting the lens in such a way does not work for you, the included CT-405 trunk case that is made from highly durable aluminum will do a better job at keeping the lens protected.
4) Focus Acquisition Speed and Accuracy
Just like all high-end Nikon super telephoto lenses, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E VR is equipped with Internal Focus (IF) and Silent Wave Motor (SWM) for super fast autofocus operation. Autofocus is incredibly fast – Nikon only puts its best high-speed motors in such lenses, so AF is pushed to its limits. Putting both 400mm f/2.8G VR and 400mm f/2.8E VR side by side, I could not see changes in AF speed and I honestly did not expect to see improvements, as it is hard to push the envelope even higher. The lens snaps into focus instantly and silently, thanks to the Silent Wave Motor. John Lawson pointed out that the VR mechanism makes quite a different noise compared to his 600mm f/4G VR and I felt a similar change in the sound between the new 400mm f/2.8E and its predecessor as well. The noise is not necessarily quieter, it is just of a different pitch.
Autofocusing works very well, even in low-light environments. I used the lens on several Nikon DSLRs like Nikon Df, D750 and D810 and it focused extremely well on all three. John Lawson tried out the 400mm f/2.8E VR on Tom Redd’s Nikon D4 with and without teleconverters and he was very impressed with the results, particularly when working in low light situations. He struggled a bit with sharpness and AF using the 2x teleconverter in dim light, but was quite happy with sharpness at f/8 and AF performance when shooting in brighter conditions.
Our collective notes on AF and sharpness performance using teleconverters are provided further down below.
5) 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!
6) 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 roughly a 10% drop in sharpness when using the TC-14E III teleconverter. While this seems like a lot, you will barely notice that 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.
7) 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 roughly a 20% drop in sharpness in the center, which is quite normal and expected from the older teleconverter.
8) 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 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.
10) 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.
11) Chromatic Aberrations
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:
12) 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.
14) Vibration Reduction
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.
15) Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR vs Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR
Let’s take a look at how the lens compares to its predecessor:
Although the previous generation 400mm f/2.8G VR is no slouch in optical performance, we can see that the newer 400mm f/2.8E FL VR lens performs better than its predecessor. The new lens has superior sharpness in the center, has similar mid-frame performance and slightly better corner performance, as seen in the above graph. And because the new 400mm f/2.8E FL VR is sharper, you can assume that its predecessor won’t be as good with the three Nikon teleconverters.
16) Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR
Another interesting comparison would be to look at the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR lens, which is also known to be very sharp across its range. Here is a comparison of the two lenses at 400mm:
Right off the bat, we can clearly see that the 200-400mm f/4G is no contender for the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR. Although it starts out with similar sharpness in the center, keep in mind that it is at f/4 vs f/2.8 and its sharpness never really reaches the levels that the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR does.
17) Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR vs Nikon 500mm f/4G VR
A lot of photographers wonder whether it is worth getting a 400mm f/2.8 lens with a teleconverter, or a 500mm f/4 lens. For the below comparison, I put the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR lens with the TC-14E III teleconverter, against the raw performance of the 500mm f/4G VR, which is a very sharp and highly regarded lens. This comparison is obviously of different focal lengths – 560mm vs 500mm, but it should give an understanding of what happens when you compare these two configurations:
While the Nikkor 500mm f/4G VR is not as sharp in the center as the Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E VR bare, its overall performance is very impressive. The lens performs slightly better in the mid-frame and the corners. However, we are not comparing the two lenses directly – we are looking at the 400mm f/2.8E VR lens with a teleconverter. With such a setup, it is pretty clear that the 500mm f/4G VR by itself would yield slightly sharper images than the 400mm f/2.8E VR with the 1.4x teleconverter. However, the differences are not as drastic as one might think – anything at 2500 and above is already acceptably sharp, so most people probably would have a hard time telling the differences between the two, especially on a lower resolution camera like the Nikon D4s. Only if one looks at 100% zoom on a high resolution camera with fine detail, would they notice that the 500mm f/4G would appear sharper.
18) Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR vs Nikon 600mm f/4G VR
Next, let’s take a look at how the Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL VR compares to the Nikkor 600mm f/4G VR. For this comparison, we will be looking at the 400mm with the 1.4x teleconverter, so there is a 40mm difference in focal length between the two. I don’t think it would make a lot of sense to compare the lens with the 1.7x teleconverter, because we would be overshooting by 80mm, but if you want, you can look at the numbers from the previous section and make your own comparison. Here are the results:
Again, we are dealing with a legendary and highly regarded lens here, which demonstrates superb performance – the 600mm f/4G VR would again be sharper than the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR with the 1.4x teleconverter, which is pretty much a given, since the 600mm is better optimized for the longer focal length just like the 500mm f/4. But like above, we are not dealing with a night and day scenario here – the two are still pretty sharp and one would have to look at very fine detail on a high resolution camera to be able to tell the difference.
19) Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR vs Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL VR
Our last case scenario is comparing the 400mm f/2.8E VR with the monster of a lens, the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E VR – wildlife photographer’s dream setup. The only combination that is comparable is the 400mm f/2.8E VR with the 2x teleconverter attached, versus the 800mm f/5.6E VR bare. I think you can already guess what the resulting comparison here will look like:
Ouch, this is what happens when you try to compare a lens with a practically flat, single line MTF curve with a lens and a 2x teleconverter. The difference is night and day, even when stopped down. There is no question here that the 800mm f/5.6E VR would trump the 400mm f/2.8E VR at 800mm. So if you need the reach, nothing will beat the 800mm f/5.6E VR lens. And it had better – we are talking about a lens that costs as much as a car!
20) Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR Comparison Summary
From the above comparisons, we can see that the new 400mm f/2.8E FL VR is sharper than its predecessor, but falls behind all three longer super telephoto lenses when coupled with a teleconverter. Why would you want this lens then, especially considering the fact that it is not a cheap lens with its hefty $12K MSRP price. The answer is versatility! When shooting with a 500mm f/4G VR lens, you cannot go shorter than 500mm. The same for 600mm f/4G VR and even more so with the 800mm f/5.6E FL VR. So if you are out shooting and your action is closer than you would like, you have no shot. Those who photograph bears in Alaska or African wildlife on a safari trip know how limiting long super telephoto lenses can be when the action is too close – you cannot fit the animal into your frame and you end up either capturing part of the animal, or skip shooting completely. In those situations, being able to use a shorter lens can be extremely handy and that’s what the 400mm f/2.8E FL provides – you can shoot at 400mm and if you need to get closer to the action, you can use any of the three teleconverters. Sure, the results won’t be as good as the longer lenses, but if you use a 16-24 MP camera body and do some sharpening and down-sampling in post, you can yield pretty darn good results even with the 2x teleconverter. And the images in this review showcase that.
Another issue with long super telephoto lenses is atmospheric haze. I witnessed this when shooting the 800mm f/5.6E FL VR lens in Yellowstone – it was rather difficult to yield good sharpness, unless I was shooting either early in the morning, or in the late afternoon when the haze was not as bad. On a sunny day, it was a rather painful experience that initially made me think that something was wrong with the 800mm f/5.6E VR lens that I was shooting with. In that regard, 400mm is a much more manageable focal length to work with.
Lastly, don’t forget about f/2.8 vs f/4 vs f/5.6 – when light conditions deteriorate, a full stop of light could be a life saver. ISO 3200 vs 6400 looks very different. 1/500 vs 1/250 shutter speed could save the shot from being blurry due to motion blur. With the 400mm f/2.8, you have the ability to gather more light – it is better to have a good shot that you can crop and work with, rather than having a closer but blurry subject or a noisy, unworkable image.
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR represents yet another marvel of modern engineering. Thanks to the new optical formula using fluorite lens elements, Nikon was not only able to make the lens lighter than its predecessor, but also much easier to handle, thanks to the more balanced distribution of the lens elements. As a result, the tripod / monopod-only lens, which many historically dubbed “monster” of a lens due to its weight and heft became hand-holdable, which in itself is a breakthrough for many sports and wildlife photographers. And Nikon did this without compromising on sharpness – as you have seen from the previous sections of this review, the new 400mm f/2.8E FL VR is sharper than its predecessor. On top of this, Nikon included all of the latest technologies in the lens design: from the new fluorine coating to the latest generation vibration reduction technology with the new “Sport” mode. Although these features came at a price increase of $2500 over its predecessor, the weight savings alone will be worth paying the premium for many photography enthusiasts and professionals, since it opens up new opportunities for capturing action.
Just like its predecessor, the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR has the ability to beautifully render backgrounds, effectively isolating subjects and yielding exceptionally crisp and colorful images – something cheaper and slower zoom lenses from third party manufacturers are simply incapable of doing. We are dealing with a whole different level of optics here, which is what you pay the high price premium for. It goes without saying that an image from a 400mm f/2.8 lens would always look much more aesthetically pleasing than an image from a 150-600mm zoom lens, that’s just the limitation of optics: high-end professional glass vs consumer/enthusiast-level glass and f/2.8 vs f/5.6 or slower.
Lenses like the Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL VR are certainly not for everyone – most photographers will consider it silly to spend $12K on such a lens. However, for those who strive for perfection, to get their next “money” shot, the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR is well worth the investment. On top of that, such rare and exotic lenses usually go up in price overtime (at least until a replacement comes out). When Nikon announced the previous generation 400mm f/2.8G VR lens in 2007, its MSRP price was set to $8800. Overtime, its price was increased to $9500 and that’s what its selling price was before it got discontinued and replaced with the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR. So if you bought that lens at its original price, used it for a few years and sold it in good condition, you would not have lost money on it. Today, the 400mm f/2.8G is being sold for around $7K and above on eBay (in good condition). So if you bought it at $9K, used it for 5 years and sold it at $7K, you would have only lost $2K. That’s equivalent to paying $33 for renting the lens per month – no rental house would ever give you such a lens at that price. So buying such an expensive lens might not be as silly as it sounds, especially for those who use it professionally.
If you cannot make up your mind on which of the super telephoto lenses to get, here is my personal advice. For photographing close action, whether for shooting bears in Alaska or wildlife in Africa, the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G VR II would most likely be the ideal candidate, due to its zoom versatility. I would not use it for reach though, as it only couples well with the 1.4x teleconverter and really struggles with focus accuracy when shooting distant subjects. For everything else, the Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL VR would be my top pick at the moment due to its weight advantages, hand-holdability and versatility with teleconverters. When Nikon releases the 500mm f/4E FL VR, my preference will most likely shift towards that lens, since it will be much lighter than the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR, being an f/4 lens. If you are after little birdies and always feel the need to get closer, nothing obviously beats 600mm and 800mm lenses. But you do have to keep in mind that long super telephoto lenses, especially the 800mm f/5.6E FL VR come with their own share of problems, so you need to know if you truly want something that long and big.
Overall, all three of us (myself, John Lawson and Steve Lumpkin) that contributed to this review are very impressed with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR. It is a ridiculously sharp, contrasty and lightweight lens that only deserves high praises. Aside from its high price, all three of us had a hard time finding anything to complain about: it is nearly darn perfect. I wish I had more time to shoot with the 400mm f/2.8E FL VR – it truly is a beautiful chunk of glass, something I dream of having in my bag some day…
22) Where to buy and availability
You can order your copy of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL VR lens at B&H for $11,996 (as of 04/09/2015).
23) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Photography Life, John Lawson and Steve Lumpkin. All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author and photographers.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8E VR
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating