On March 5 of 2013, Nikon released the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, the long awaited update to the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR that was released over 13 years ago as Nikon’s first lens to sport image stabilization (Vibration Reduction) technology. I have been impatiently waiting for this lens update for quite some time now for a number of reasons. First, it is the only Nikon budget lens that can reach 400mm focal length without teleconverters. Second, it is a very versatile lens with a huge zoom range, which can be quite useful for outdoor sports and wildlife photography. Third, it is a relatively lightweight lens one could hand-hold for extended periods of time, especially when compared to any of the Nikon super telephoto lenses. And lastly, the old Nikon 80-400mm VR had a very slow autofocus motor and it was almost unusable for anything that moves, making the Nikon 300mm f/4D pretty much the only “budget” telephoto choice. So this much-needed, long overdue update was certainly welcomed by many of us Nikon shooters.
I did not want to rush with this Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR review, because I wanted to make sure that I test every aspect of the lens and fully understand its advantages and disadvantages, especially when compared its older sibling. Personally, I never liked the old Nikon 80-400mm lens (more on this below), so aside from finding out how it fared optically, my main goal was to evaluate the new 80-400mm for serious wildlife work. My Nikon 300mm f/4D is also long overdue for a replacement and its lack of VR makes it tough to use it in low-light conditions. The new 80-400mm looked very promising when I looked at its impressive MTF charts, so my first objective was to see if the 80-400mm could replace my aged 300mm f/4D lens (which I love and use all the time when travelling). I also wanted to compare the lens against my Nikon 200-400mm f/4G, with and without teleconverters. The ability to use teleconverters on the new 80-400mm sounded quite intriguing.
By now, I am happy to say that I have thoroughly examined this lens in various conditions and having spent close to three months with two separate lens samples, I now have a pretty good idea about its performance characteristics. In this review, I will be comparing the Nikon 80-400mm VR to the older AF-D version, as well as other lenses like Nikon 300mm f/4D, Sigma 50-500mm OS and Nikon 200-400mm VR.
1) Lens Specifications
- Up to 4 stops of image stabilization compensation with the Vibration Reduction II technology
- The ultimate medium to super-telephoto zoom lens with a versatile zoom range of 80-400mm
- 4 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass elements for maximum sharpness and minimum chromatic aberration
- Nano Crystal Coat (N) reduces ghosting and lens flare
- Silent Wave Motor (SWM) provides ultra-fast, ultra-quiet autofocusing with seamless manual focus override
- Internal Focusing (IF) lens construction, which means that the lens does not change in size during AF operation
- Focal length: 80-400mm
- Maximum aperture: f/4.5-5.6
- Minimum aperture: f/32-40
- Lens construction: 20 elements in 12 groups (with 4 ED and Nano Crystal Coat-deposited lens elements)
- Picture angle: 30°10′ – 6°10′ (20° – 4° with Nikon DX format)
- Closest focusing distance: 5.74 ft. (1.75m)
- No. of diaphragm blades: 9
- Filter/attachment size: 77mm
- Diameter x length (extension from lens mount): Approximately 95.5 x 203mm
- Weight: Approximately 1570g
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
2) Lens Handling and Build
While the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR does not have the same full metal construction as the expensive Nikon pro telephoto lenses, the lens is still built very well. The lens barrel is metal on the back and the front exposed parts of the lens, while both zoom and focus rings (which are are covered with textured rubber), along with the section in between where all the different switches are, are plastic. The lens fully collapses at its shortest focal length of 80mm, and the front element moves very close to the barrel, with almost no space left in between. As you start zooming in, the front of the lens starts extending out, reaching its fullest length at 400mm. The inner barrel is made of plastic and unlike some of the cheaper Nikon zoom lenses, does not wobble when fully extended. The lens will take light bumps here and there (try not to bump the lens when it is fully extended), but I would not expect it to survive a serious drop. There are many moving lens elements inside the lens and any of them could shift if the lens takes a serious hit.
Plastic parts do not mean that the lens feels cheap in any way or that its quality is sub-par. Many of the Nikon professional lenses are also made with a hard plastic shell to make them lighter, so there is no need to worry. In fact, plastic handles extreme temperatures better than metal, because it does not expand and contract like metal does when temperatures change quickly. On top of that, it is much easier to hold plastic in extremely cold temperatures without using gloves, and the plastic parts are indeed where you would normally keep your hands when hand-holding this lens.
The zoom ring is easy to rotate from 80 to 400mm and vice versa, with some natural resistance. Overtime, it is normal for this resistance to get weaker – most of my zoom lenses were stiffer at first and got much easier to rotate after several years of use.
While there is a rubber gasket on the lens mount to prevent dust and other particles making their way into the camera, the lens itself is not fully weather sealed. The older 80-400mm was not weather sealed and it did not have a rubber gasket either. You should be fine in light rain, but I would not expose it for too long in heavier rain or extreme moisture. I do not expect the lens to get stuck in freezing conditions like some of the cheap plastic kit lenses do though. Still, take some caution when dealing with extreme temperatures and make sure to gradually change temperatures to prevent condensation and water build-up inside the lens.
Weight-wise, the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR is definitely lighter than any of the Nikon pro telephotos, but it is still 200 grams heavier than its predecessor and even slightly heavier than the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. It is also bulkier than both – the lens barrel is wider and the length is about the same as on the 70-200mm when collapsed. Take a look at how the Nikon 300mm f/4D, Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II compare size-wise:
The tallest in the group is the Nikon 300mm f/4D, followed by the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. Now that’s its size collapsed at 80mm and without a lens hood. Once you fully extend the lens and attach the lens hood, it gets almost twice longer in length and becomes the longest of the three:
Speaking of lens hoods, you do want to keep it on the lens at all times, just like on the older 80-400mm. There is a reason why the hood is so long! Even a slight exposure to a bright light source can cause serious ghosting and flare issues. Take a look at the following example:
See the nasty flare on the right bottom side of the image? The sun was not in the frame, but the angle at which the sun rays landed on the lens created this flare effect. So try to keep the lens away from bright light sources and always use the hood! On top of this, it is better to keep the hood for protection anyway. I like how Nikon designed the new HB-65 lens hood. It attaches securely to the lens and has a lock system, just like the hoods designed for top professional Nikkor lenses. It does not wobble and will not detach without pressing the release button on the side.
If you are wondering how the lens compares to the big pro glass, take a look at the following comparison with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR:
3) Tripod Collar
The Nikon 80-400mm AF-D was known for its notoriously bad tripod collar and foot, which made the lens prone to a lot of vibrations when mounted on a tripod. While Nikon did a better job with the tripod collar on the 80-400mm AF-S by integrating it more to the lens barrel, the lens foot is still too short for this lens, as can be seen below:
For a lens like this, the foot should be longer and there should be two mounting threads, not just one. I don’t know why Nikon keeps designing these practically useless tripod collars on its lower-end telephoto lenses – third party collars are a world better in comparison. If you already own the lens or you are planning to buy it, I would seriously plan on replacing the Nikon collar with an arca-swiss type foot from Kirk Enterprises:
Note how much longer the tripod foot is, in comparison to the stock version. There are two reasons why Kirk’s tripod foot is better: a) it spreads the weight and balance across the whole foot rather than a single spot, since it touches the lens in two places and b) it has an arca-swiss quick release foot, which is what you want to use for long lenses anyway. If you have handled any of the Nikon super telephotos in the past, you probably already know that arca-swiss is the only way to go if you ever want to mount those lenses on a Gimbal head.
4) Focus Speed and Accuracy
For any telephoto lens used for fast action photography, autofocus speed and accuracy are the most important factors, without a doubt. A telephoto lens could be the sharpest lens in the world, but if it cannot properly acquire focus, it is as good as useless. Autofocus speed and accuracy was the biggest weakness of the original Nikon 80-400mm AF-D – it was too slow and inaccurate for those critical moments. And the screw-drive motor often lacked the much-needed precision even when photographing still subjects. For this review, I also got a hold of the old 80-400mm AF-D. After much frustration with the lens, I handed it to our wildlife guru Tom Redd and he absolutely hated its autofocus performance on his Nikon D4.
You cannot even remotely compare the AF performance and accuracy of the old lens to the new Nikon 80-400mm AF-S. Yes, it is that much better. I had some doubts about the AF performance of the new 80-400mm initially when it was announced, but as soon as I unpacked the lens and mounted it on the camera, I knew it would not disappoint speed-wise. Indeed, the autofocus speed of the 80-400mm is very good, I would say pretty comparable to the pro f/2.8 and f/4 lenses. Take a look at the below video, where I compare AF speed of both lenses side by side:
I apologize for the bad quality of the video. I shot it in a dim room with my Nikon D3s, so the above video is pretty grainy. In the beginning of the video, I show how the two lenses compare in AF speed by pressing the “AF-ON” button on two Nikon D800E cameras at the same time. Then I show autofocus speed on both lenses individually. As you can see, the Nikon 80-400mm is about twice faster than its predecessor! Also, turn up your speakers and listen to how noisy the AF-D version is in comparison.
A quick tip: make sure to set the focus delimiter switch to “∞-6m” instead of “FULL” when photographing wildlife. This will speed autofocus up considerably. Only switch back to “FULL” when the subject is closer than 6 meters.
When it comes to autofocus accuracy, the new Nikon 80-400mm is also superior. Changes in subject movement are tracked better in smaller AF steps and the lens produces better results in almost all cases.
However, this lens has one serious flaw, which can get annoying very quickly – it has the same AF hesitation or “chatter” as some other AF-S zoom lenses, like the Nikon 70-300mm VR. I first noticed this when photographing my son in a park at a long distance zoomed all the way to 400mm. The autofocus motor went back and forth in small steps continuously for as long as I half-pressed the shutter release button. It was a bright day, so this was not like this problem was happening only in low light. I then took the lens to photograph birds and the same thing happened again, pretty much every time when AF was engaged. What does this AF hesitation look like? Take a look at the two images below:
According to the EXIF data, both images were taken 1 second apart. I did not move – only the black bird’s head moved a little. And yet the second image is completely out of focus, thanks to this “back and forth” autofocus action. In this case, I was shooting wide open (f/5.6) at 400mm, 1/1600 shutter speed. I have many examples like this, where AF would bring the subject into perfect focus on one image, and out of focus on another. And for those that think this might have been my camera, I use the same setup every time, with “Focus tracking with lock-on” set to 3 (Normal), Dynamic AF with 51 Focus Points, sometimes switching to 21 Focus Points depending on the situation. So I do not have some odd camera setting that could cause this sort of behavior.
In comparison, my Nikon 300mm f/4D or 200-400mm f/4 lenses almost never do this – they lock on and just sit there, until the subject moves. I think this has to do with the small f/5.6 aperture on the long end of the lens – perhaps it is too limiting for the autofocus system. Autofocus accuracy was quite bad even in Live View mode at long distances, so I had to rely on manual focus instead. At the short end of the range where the lens was at f/4.5, the lens did not seem to be as bad.
Another negative side of this lens is its poor autofocus accuracy in low-light situations, which again has to do with the small maximum aperture. But this is something I expected from such a lens – most other variable aperture Nikon lenses have the same issue (the old 80-400mm AF-D was even worse). Just try to shoot in good light and keep this limitation in mind when the light conditions worsen.
5) Lens Breathing
Despite the impressive optical performance of the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR, it suffers from the same “lens breathing” problem as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. This is due to the way the lens elements focus internally, which makes a different group of lenses move during the AF operation, causing the lens to lose its effective focal length at shorter subjects. The Nikon 80-400mm AF-D does not have the same lens breathing problem, so when I compared the two side by side, the difference in focal length varied from a couple of feet at the shortest focal lengths all the way to 5 feet at 400mm. On a positive note, the new lens design allows the lens to focus much closer – the minimum focus distance for the 80-400mm AF-S shortened to 1.75 meters from 2.3m on the 80-400mm AF-D.
6) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
As I reveal on the “Lens Comparisons” section of this review, the optical performance of the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR is very impressive when compared to its predecessor. The Sigma 50-500mm slightly out-resolves the Nikon 80-400mm at short focal lengths, but loses between 300mm and 400mm. The 80-400mm AF-S also out-resolves the Nikon 70-300mm VR, but falls behind both 300mm f/4D and 200-400mm f/4G lenses (tested it on the high-resolution Nikon D800E). Obviously, it is not as good as the expensive Nikon super telephoto lenses, but that’s expected for a lens of this class.
Nikon completely redesigned the optical formula of the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR and optimized it for modern high resolution sensors. The lens features 20 elements in 12 groups, 4 of which are ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass elements and one of them is a Super ED element. In comparison, the Nikon 80-400mm AF-D has 17 elements in 11 groups and comes with 3 ED elements. These additional lens elements provide additional corrections against various optical aberrations, dramatically improving the sharpness and clarity of images. This difference in sharpness is quite evident from the MTF charts from both lenses (if you do not understand MTF charts, see my detailed article on reading MTF charts):
Take a look at both MTF curves – the new Nikon 80-400mm is on the left and the older AF-D version is on the right. The Nikon 80-400mm is clearly sharper and has higher contrast than its predecessor on the short end of the focal range.
And while the above MTF charts suggests that the old 80-400mm should be just as good in the center optically, I found that to be inaccurate when conducting my lab tests using Imatest software – the Nikon 80-400mm AF-D is definitely significantly worse at longer focal lengths (tested with a brand new Nikon 80-400mm AF-D).
Now I do have to note that there is definitely sample variation on the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR lenses out there. The first sample I tested was very good at 80-300mm focal lengths, but suffered badly at 400mm – not something I expected after examining the MTF chart. I was rather disappointed with the lens at first, because I could not yield any sharp images above 300mm. Then I put it in a lab and examined the lens at 400mm. The tests revealed rather nasty lens alignment issues, so I sent it back for a replacement. The second sample turned out to be much better, although I did have to dial -10 in AF Fine Tune after calibrating it using LensAlign (see my article on calibrating lenses). Once the lens was in sync with the camera, its AF accuracy greatly improved and I started getting sharp images at 400mm – something I could not achieve with the first sample.
7) Teleconverter Compatibility and Performance
Unlike the old AF-D version, the new 80-400mm AF-S can take teleconverters. Back when the original version of the lens was released, there were no camera bodies that could handle autofocus for smaller apertures than f/5.6. Since Nikon updated its “Multi-CAM 3500” and “Multi-CAM 4800” AF systems on the newer DSLRs like Nikon D7100, D600, D800 and D4, you can now use teleconverters and maintain autofocus at apertures up to f/8. This means that using the TC-14E II on the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens will make it a 112-560mm f/6.3-8.0 lens with fully functional autofocus. Here is a small chart that shows what each Nikon teleconverter will convert the lens to:
|TC-14E II||TC-17E II||TC-20E III|
|* Only in ideal lighting conditions when using the newest Nikon DSLRs|
|Effective Focal Length||112-560mm||136-680mm||160-800mm|