Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR Review

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This is an in-depth review of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G ED VR lens that was released in August of 2007, along with Nikon D3 and two other exotic super telephoto lenses. In this review, I will not only provide general information about the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR and its performance, but also how it works with all current Nikon teleconverters (TC-14E II, TC-17E II and TC-20E III) and how it compares to other telephoto lenses such as Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR, Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S, Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II and Nikon 500mm f/4G VR. The Nikon 500mm f/4G VR was kindly provided by Pro Photo Rental – a great lens rental company based out of Boulder, CO.

Nikon 400mm f/2.8G ED VR

One question I constantly get from our readers and I am sure many others wonder about, is which one of the super telephoto lenses to buy. The Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II and the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR II are the cheapest of the bunch under USD $7K, while the 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses are between $8.5K to $10.5K. A person spending $7K on a lens wonders if it is worth adding another thousand to get a longer, but less flexible lens, while another person might wonder which one of the long telephoto primes is the most practical on the field. It can be a tough choice, given how much positive feedback each lens gets from different photographers. Some swear by the zoom flexibility of the 200-400mm f/4 to photograph bears in Alaska, some will never use anything but the 600mm f/4 for their work and others argue that the 400mm f/2.8 is the best of the bunch, because it has the best optics and works well with all teleconverters. I wrote this review for the sole purpose of answering these questions and my analysis over the course of several months during which I worked with all these exotic lenses (except for the 600mm f/4 VR, which I could not obtain on time), along with test scenarios, was put together to provide as much valuable information on each lens as possible, to make it easier for our readers to choose the right lens for their needs. My conclusion on which lens I would personally pick is provided on the last page of the review.

Sample #7

NIKON D7000 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 550mm, ISO 100, 1/500, f/4.0

Before I start talking about the lens in more detail, I would like to clarify that there is no “Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR II” as some blogs and websites claim – the current model’s exact name is “AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR” as stated on Nikon’s website. So there is only one 400mm f/2.8G lens with vibration reduction out there that came out in 2007 and it is the same one I am reviewing. The current 400mm f/2.8G already has VR II built in, which is probably why people keep messing up and using the VR II name. Nikon only puts the number II at the end of the lens’ official name (which happens to be right after the word “VR”) to indicate that it is a second revision of the previous-generation lens. For example, both the original Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR and the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR were updated with a second (II) version to include VR II and Nano Crystal Coat, so their model names changed to “AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II” and “AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II”, respectively. The last digit is not an indication of VR II technology, but rather the revision of the lens.

1) Lens Overview

Nikon’s current line of exotic super telephoto lenses includes three monster lenses – Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, Nikon 500mm f/4G VR and Nikon 600mm f/4G VR. All three were updated at the same time in 2007 to include the latest Nikon technologies such as VR II (Vibration Reduction II), ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and N (Nano Crystal Coat), when Nikon announced its first full-frame DSLR – the Nikon D3. Before 2007, none of these lenses featured vibration reduction / image stabilization and Nikon was clearly lagging behind its main competitor Canon, which had image-stabilized versions of its super telephoto lenses since as far as 1999. It is hard to understand what I mean by the word “monster”, until you get to actually play with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 and compare it against other telephoto lenses. It truly is a massive and a heavy lens, due to its complex optical design (14 lens elements in 11 groups) with large glass to give you that f/2.8 maximum aperture.

Sample #15

NIKON D3S + 400mm f/2.8 @ 550mm, ISO 200, 1/800, f/4.0

Its resolution and acuity performance are legendary, right on par with Nikon’s best of the best – the Nikon 200mm f/2G VR II and Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. Nikon labels the lens as a “Sports and Action” lens for a reason – its super fast autofocus silent wave motor is designed for capturing moving subjects in real time. You will quite often see this lens getting 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 magical optical design allow isolating subjects with a very shallow depth of field, beautifully rendering the background known as “bokeh“, while retaining maximum sharpness on the subject.

The Nikon 400mm f/2.8G fully works with all current Nikon teleconverters and its low-light capabilities are very impressive. The Nikon 1.4x TC-14E II teleconverter increases the focal length of the lens to 560mm while increasing the maximum aperture to f/4.0, the Nikon 1.7x TC-14E II teleconverter increases the focal length to 680mm and maximum aperture to f/4.8, and the Nikon 2.0x TC-20E III doubles the focal length of the lens to 800mm and stops down the lens by two stops at maximum aperture of f/5.6. What this essentially means, is that while you get more total focal length with the teleconverters, you end up losing some light at the same time. 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 D7000, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G would have a field of view similar to a 1200mm lens!

The two letters “ED” in the lens name (the lens has 3 total ED elements) stand for “Extra-low Dispersion”, as explained in my Nikon lens naming convention article, which means that the lens delivers superior sharpness and reduced chromatic aberration or “color fringing” in photographs when compared to non-ED lenses. In addition to the Silent Wave Motor (SWM/AF-S) that provides fast and quiet auto focus, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR also features Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coating technologies, which reduce ghosting and flare. When it comes to weather sealing, the Nikon 400mm easily withstands dust, moisture and tough weather conditions – usual environments for sports, nature and wildlife photographers.

2) Lens Specifications

Main Features:

  1. Super-fast, telephoto lens, optimized for edge-to-edge sharpness on both the Nikon FX- (23.9 x 36mm) and DX-format image sensors.
  2. New tripod detection mode reduces vibration that may occur due to shutter release when mounted on a tripod.
  3. Exclusive Nano Crystal Coat and a meniscus protective glass element combine to further reduce ghosting and flare for even greater image clarity.
  4. Rugged, reliable and lightweight, this lens features a magnesium die-cast barrel and professional-grade dust- and moisture-resistant construction.
  5. Fully compatible with Nikon TC-14E II, TC-17E II and TC-20E II (III) Teleconverters
  6. Nikon VR II (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization, engineered specifically for each VR NIKKOR lens, enables handheld shooting at up to 4 shutter speeds slower than would otherwise be possible, assuring dramatically sharper still images and video capture.
  7. Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) enables ultra-high-speed autofocusing with exceptional accuracy and powerful, super-quiet operation.
  8. Three Extra-low Dispersion (ED) elements control chromatic aberrations while enhancing color, sharpness and contrast, even at the widest aperture settings.
  9. New A/M focus mode provides fast, secure switching between auto and manual focus operation.
Sample #11

NIKON D3S + 400mm f/2.8 @ 550mm, ISO 800, 1/640, f/8.0

Technical Specifications:

  1. Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
  2. Focal Length: 400mm
  3. Maximum Aperture: f/2.8
  4. Minimum Aperture f/22
  5. Format: FX/35mm
  6. Maximum Angle of View: (DX-format) 4°
  7. Maximum Angle of View: (FX-format) 6°10′
  8. Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.16x
  9. Lens Elements: 14
  10. Lens Groups: 11
  11. Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, FX in DX Crop Mode, 35mm Film
  12. VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
  13. Diaphragm Blades: 9
  14. Distance Information: Yes
  15. Nano Crystal Coat: Yes
  16. ED Glass Elements: 3
  17. Super Integrated Coating: Yes
  18. Autofocus: Yes
  19. AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
  20. Internal Focusing: Yes
  21. Minimum Focus Distance: 9.5 ft. (2.9m)
  22. Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Auto/Manual
  23. G-type: Yes
  24. Filter Size: 52mm
  25. Accepts Filter Type: Slip-in
  26. Dimensions (Approx.): 6.3×14.5 in. (Diameter x Length), 159.5x368mm (Diameter x Length)
  27. Weight (Approx.): 163 oz. (4,620g)
  28. Supplied Accessories: Slip-on HK-33 lens hood, CT-404 trunk case, Slip-in filter holder, 52mm screw-in NC filter, LN-1 strap, Monopod collar

Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.

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