Nikon 80-400mm VR Review

« »

22) Nikon 80-400mm AF-S vs 80-400mm AF-D

I had a few encounters with the old Nikon 80-400mm AF-D VR lens, which left a bad taste in my mouth. The screw-drive autofocus system on the lens requires an AF motor on the camera and is not only painfully slow, but also very loud. Its autofocus accuracy goes down the drain in less than ideal lighting situations and I struggled quite a bit to get anything that moves into focus. Its front element moves in and out when autofocus is engaged and you cannot override focus without having to switch to manual focus mode (very typical issues with all AF-D lenses). Plus, if you place your fingers right in between the front element and the lens barrel at short focal lengths, you can end up pinching your fingers! Its tripod collar is complete junk, similar to the tripod collar on the Nikon 300mm f/4D (below), so most people that own the lens ended up removing it completely. Optically, it is not a superb performer either, since it suffers at long focal lengths above 300mm. Because of all these problems, I never recommended the 80-400mm AF-D to any of our readers, especially for photographing fast action.

With the new Nikon 80-400mm, Nikon addressed most of the above issues. The screw-drive AF motor has been replaced with an AF-S silent wave motor. Because of the Internal Focus design, the front element of the lens does not move anymore, so there is no threat of finger pinching anymore. Unfortunately, although the tripod collar now feels to be a part of the lens, it is still designed poorly, as indicated on the second page of this review.

I won’t bother with comparing the two lenses at all focal lengths (Imatest data for all focal lengths will be provided in the upcoming Nikon 80-400mm AF-D review). In short, the Nikon 80-400mm is better than its predecessor at all focal lengths and in many cases, by a huge margin. Let’s take a look at how the two lenses compare at 80mm first, then 400mm, which is what most birders and wildlife photographers are interested in:

Here is a comparison at 80mm focal length:

Clearly, the old AF-D version lags behind quite a bit in comparison in the center, mid-frame and corners. What about the performance at 400mm? Let’s take a look:

As you can see, the new Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR is again noticeably sharper than its predecessor. There is a clear difference at the largest aperture, as well as when the lens is stopped down.

23) Nikon 80-400mm AF-S vs Nikon 80-400mm AF-D Conclusion

Without a doubt, the new 80-400mm AF-S lens is a world better compared to the aged AF-D version. I did not want to overload this page with too many graphs, so I decided to exclude other focal lengths like 105mm, 200mm and 300mm, but once I have the Nikon 80-400mm AF-D review published, you will be able to compare all focal lengths yourself and see that the AF-D version lags behind at every focal length, every aperture. The bad thing about the old AF-D lens, is that its performance starts decreasing sharply at 200mm and drops significantly beyond 300mm. In fact, this drop is so huge that even the smaller and cheaper Nikon 70-300mm outperforms it at both 200mm and 300mm focal lengths. From this, you can draw a conclusion that old Nikkor lenses are mostly not optimized for high resolution sensors (all Imatest lens tests for Nikon lenses at Photography Life are performed on the Nikon D800E).

24) Nikon 80-400mm VR vs Sigma 50-500mm OS

Sigma’s popular “Bigma” is a very versatile lens with its huge 50-500mm range. The latest version of the lens offers attractive features that rival the Nikkor 80-400mm AF-S lens. It has a pretty fast and silent autofocus motor, which may not be as fast as the AF-S motor on the 80-400mm, but still much faster than the one on the old 80-400mm AF-D. It has a very long and sturdy tripod foot, which you can mount on an arca-swiss head because of the way the foot mount is tilted (note that it is not an arca-swiss mount). It is a well-designed lens overall. On the negative side, the lens is quite heavy at almost two kilos (and it should be, with its 22 elements, a large front element and a metal construction), which is over 400 grams heavier than the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S. Add another kilo and you are close to what the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II weighs. Its image stabilization system is OK, but not as good as VR II on the Nikon 80-400mm. Also, it has the same focus breathing problem as the Nikon 80-400mm – its 500mm focal length is more like 420mm. Optically, if you are lucky to get a good copy of this lens, it can deliver very good sharpness overall. I tried two copies of this lens in the past and both significantly differed in performance. Although I do have to give some credit to Sigma – it has gotten much better in terms of quality control during the past few years, so sample variation is not as bad as it used to be in the past. This particular copy that I tested was a good one, as evidenced from the optical performance charts below.

Let’s take a look at how the two lenses compare at their shortest focal lengths – 50mm and 80mm:

Surprisingly, the Sigma 50-500mm outperforms the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S at its shortest focal length of 50mm in the center. Mid-frame and corners start out about the same and the 80-400mm outperforms the 50-500mm at f/8. Obviously, this is not an apples to apples comparison, because we are comparing 50mm to 80mm. However, the Sigma actually gets slightly better as its focal length is increased from 50mm to 80mm, so it still outperforms the Nikon here. The mid-frame and corner performance, however, is rather weak on the Sigma – the Nikon certainly does better there.

What about long focal lengths? That’s the weakness of the Bigma – it loses sharpness pretty quickly past 300mm, just like the Nikkors. But that’s again expected from such a lens! Let’s take a look at how the two compare at 400mm:

The Sigma 50-500mm starts out a little weak wide open throughout the frame, but picks up at f/8 and smaller. At f/11, it outresolves the Nikon 80-400mm in the center, but its mid-frame and corners are still rather weak.

Now let’s not forget one thing – the Sigma 50-500mm can get to 500mm! What if we take a look at how the lens performs at its longest range and compare its performance to the Nikon 80-400mm with + TC-14E II? Here are the results:

Now this is an interesting find. Although the Nikon 80-400mm technically provides longer range at 560mm vs 500mm, not only is the Sigma faster with its f/6.3 maximum aperture, but it is also superior optically in the center at all apertures. Mid-frame and corners are about the same and sometimes worse, but the center performance is definitely better. Judging from the above, I would prefer the Sigma 50-500mm over the Nikon 80-400mm if I wanted reach beyond 400mm.

25) Nikon 80-400mm AF-S vs Sigma 50-500mm OS Conclusion

In all honesty, I expected the Nikon to perform much better than the Sigma 50-500mm. Although the Sigma is weaker, it is optically superior than the Nikon 80-400mm AF-D and only slightly worse than the new AF-S version. And if focal lengths above 400mm are needed, looks like Sigma is a better way to go than the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S + TC-14E II. It seems like the Sigma provides a great bang for the buck here, considering its $1,500 price tag versus Nikon’s hefty $2,699 asking price. Add a TC-14E II and we are talking about spending over $3K here for the Nikon. Yes, the Sigma does have its bulk/weight issue, its maximum aperture is limiting at f/6.3 starting at 300mm (which can result in focus hunting on older Nikon DSLRs), its AF speed might not be as good and its image stabilization is not really comparable to Nikon’s, but the price difference is still too great in my opinion.

26) Nikon 80-400mm VR vs Nikon 300mm f/4D

When it comes to budget and lightweight options for outdoor sports and wildlife photography, the Nikon 300mm f/4D is the lens that I often recommend for the reach. Coupled with the TC-14E II teleconverter, the 300mm f/4 can get to 420mm without losing much IQ. It is a very sharp lens with a fast and accurate autofocus system that I rely on quite a bit for wildlife photography, specifically birding. It only has a couple of drawbacks that I can think of. First, it has no VR, which makes it difficult to use it in low-light conditions. Second, it has the same poor tripod collar that the old 80-400mm lens has, making the stock tripod foot practically useless (I replaced mine with a third party collar from Kirk). And lastly, there is no back element to protect the lens, so if you are not careful, you could end up with dust/particles/moisture easily getting into the lens. For that reason, my TC-14E II pretty much stays glued to the lens when I travel. As for other teleconverters, while some people have had some success with the TC-17E II, I never found this lens to work reliably with any other teleconverter. There is just too much loss of sharpness for my taste (I am a pixel peeper by nature) and autofocus behavior is unpredictable. AF certainly gets better on newer Nikon DSLRs with the TC-17E II, but it is still not as reliable as the TC-14E II.

Let’s take a look at how both lenses compare at 300mm first:

It is pretty clear that the Nikon 300mm f/4D is a sharper lens than the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S. The difference in center performance is not huge, but don’t forget that the Nikon 300mm f/4D is as old as the 80-400mm AF-D, roughly 13 years old. That’s why I have been waiting for an update to this lens – we need one designed for modern high resolution sensors, which will surely be an extremely sharp lens. In this case, the 300mm f/4D is literally pushing the limits of its resolution on the Nikon D800E. But note how the 300mm f/4D performs in mid-frame and corners – it is much better in comparison, even wide open at f/4.

What happens if we attach the TC-14E II and compare the lens to the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S at 400mm? Here is the result:

At 420mm/400mm focal lengths, the Nikon 300mm f/4D is sharper at f/5.6 throughout the frame, but once stopped down to f/8 and smaller, both lenses are pretty close in sharpness. But don’t forget something important – the 300mm f/4D at 420mm provides a much narrower field of view, which is equivalent to roughly 500mm on the Nikon 80-400mm. So this is not an apples to apples comparison – the Nikon 300mm f/4D clearly gives you more reach with the TC-14E II.

The last case scenario is to compare both lenses with different teleconverters attached – TC-17E II on the 300mm f/4D and TC-14E II on the 80-400mm AF-S:

While both lenses take a serious hit in optical performance, the Nikon 300mm f/4D shows better overall sharpness at all apertures. The Nikon 300mm f/4D also starts out at a larger aperture of f/6.7 compared to f/8 on the 80-400mm.

I did not bother with testing the TC-20E III on the 300mm f/4, since AF is completely unusable and images are too soft.

27) Nikon 80-400mm VR vs Nikon 300mm f/4D Conclusion

Although both lenses seem to perform well at 300mm and 420mm focal lengths when stopped down to f/8, as demonstrated in the above charts, I would still recommend the Nikon 300mm f/4D over the 80-400mm lens for two main reasons – autofocus performance / accuracy and better reach. Because of the lens breathing issue on the 80-400mm AF-S, the Nikon 300mm f/4D gives more reach with the TC-14E II attached, so 420mm on the 300mm f/4D is more like 500mm on the 80-400mm AF-S at short distances (this changes as the distance increases). Furthermore, the Nikon 300mm f/4D focuses instantly and accurately, with or without the TC-14E II teleconverter, whereas the Nikon 80-400mm hesitates and goes back and forth quite a bit, as explained on the second page of this review. I have been shooting with the 300mm f/4D for about 5 years now and having owned the lens for such a long time, I can say that I have never been disappointed with its optical or autofocus performance. It is a very lightweight lens that is easily hand-holdable and while its biggest weakness is lack of VR, it is still a phenomenal lens overall for photographing outdoor sports and wildlife. Just keep the shutter speed high and you will be in good shape! It does not have the versatility of a zoom lens like 80-400mm, but I personally don’t miss it, since I mostly use the longest end of the zoom range anyway, even with my Nikon 200-400mm VR lens.

28) Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR

The Nikon 200-400mm is another versatile Nikon zoom lens that many wildlife photographers love. I personally own one and it is a very sharp lens across its focal range, from center to corners. Just like the Nikon 80-400mm, it has a very effective VR system, Nano Coating and many other features found on professional Nikkor lenses. It goes really well with the Nikon TC-14E II, but I try to avoid other teleconverters, since its IQ is greatly affected by those.

Let’s take a look at how the two lenses compare at 200mm and 400mm focal lengths:

As expected, the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR performs extremely well compared to the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S. It has excellent center sharpness at the widest aperture and it outresolves the 80-400mm in the mid-frame and corners as well. The Nikon 80-400mm starts catching up at f/8 and only outperforms the 200-400mm at f/11 aperture.

Zoomed in to 400mm is where the Nikon 200-400mm truly shines. The Nikon 80-400mm simply cannot compete in comparison here, even when stopped down. Also, the Nikon 200-400mm does not suffer from focus breathing issues, so it is obviously longer at all focal lengths.

29) Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR vs Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR Conclusion

There is a reason why professional Nikkor lenses cost so much. The above comparison is an example of how a high-end professional lens typically performs when compared to enthusiast-level lenses. I did not bother comparing the two lenses with teleconverters attached, because the 200-400mm would look much better in comparison, considering how much the performance of the 80-400mm drops with a TC attached. Obviously, the 200-400mm does not have the same wide range of the 80-400mm, but it is a lens of a different class, with a tank-like construction and amazing optics. Aside from heavy weight, the biggest downside of the 200-400mm is its autofocus accuracy problems at long ranges. It focuses amazingly fast and accurate at short ranges without any hesitation, but its AF accuracy can get tricky when photographing distant subjects. I am planning to talk about this in more detail in my upcoming Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR review.

30) Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR vs Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III

I know that many of our readers will ask me to compare the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S to the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III. Some already own it and others are considering purchasing the 70-200mm with the TC-20E III. Although the Nikon 70-200mm does perform admirably well with the TC-20E III, its wide open performance at f/5.6 is rather bad with the 2x TC. The difference in performance between the 70-200mm + TC-20E III and 80-400mm AF-S at 400mm, f/5.6 is very noticeable, so I do not see the point of performing separate tests just to illustrate this. However, once stopped down to f/8, the Nikon 70-200mm + TC-20E III performance gets pretty close to that of the 80-400mm AF-S:

So if you are willing to stop down to f/8, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III is a great combo overall. However, keep in mind that f/8 is a pretty small aperture for wildlife photography. That one stop of light will make a difference not only for low-light situations, but it will also negatively affect the subject isolation capabilities of the lens. As for autofocus performance, the Nikon 70-200mm also tends to miss focus with the TC-20E III occasionally, so I would say that the two are more or less comparable.

Here is my advice – if you already own the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II with the TC-20E III, don’t buy the Nikon 80-400mm AF-S. Certainly not when Nikon wants you to pay $2,699 for it. If you do not own the 70-200mm and you are wondering which one of the two will give you better image quality for photographing those little birds in your backyard, then go for the 80-400mm – it is a better lens to get the maximum reach.

« »