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|