Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR Review

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This is an in-depth review of the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR, an exotic super telephoto lens designed for wildlife and sports photographers. Nikon first teased us with its plans to release an 800mm lens in July of 2012, with an official announcement that followed in January of 2013 (along with the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens). Nikon has not updated its manual focus 800mm f/5.6 ED-IF lens for over 25 years, so it was about time to introduce an autofocus version of the lens to the market. The Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR is a significant milestone for the Nikkor line, because this is the first lens to have the letters “FL” on the lens name, which indicate that fluorite elements are used in its optical design. Although Canon has been using fluorite elements in its exotic super telephoto lenses for a while now, Nikon historically has only used fluorite elements in its medical / microscope lenses. So in a way, this is the first lens of its kind for Nikon.

Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR

In addition, the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR comes with a number of high-end technological advancements, some of which are also brand new. The lens features a complex optical design with a total of 20 lens elements in 13 groups, 2 of which are Fluorite and 2 are Extra-low Dispersion / ED (see Nikon Lens Nomenclature). As with all top of the line Nikkor lenses, the lens has the special Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coating to reduce ghosting / flare and to enhance colors / clarity. The Silent Wave Motor (SWM) allows for ultra-quiet and accurate autofocus operation, while the latest Vibration Reduction technology used on the lens can provide up to 4.5 stops of compensation for shooting hand-held. Lastly, something also new that we have never seen on telephoto lenses before is the “E” letter designation, which stands for “Electromagnetic Diaphragm Mechanism”. It allows for very precise electronic diaphragm control. While aperture / diaphragm blades on conventional “D” and “G” type lenses are operated by mechanical linage levers, the “E” type lenses are controlled electronically. This basically translates to more consistent results with high precision from exposure to exposure, when shooting in bursts in continuous AF mode. No other Nikkor lens (except for the three PC-E lenses) has this type of capability at this time. This is the reason why the lens is officially called “AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR”.

Hummingbird in Flight #2

NIKON D4 + 800mm f/5.6 @ 800mm, ISO 2800, 1/320, f/5.6

Until the 800mm f/5.6 came out, Nikon’s longest super telephoto lens was the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR. To get longer focal lengths, one would have to use teleconverters – 2.0x with the 400mm f/2.8 to get to 800mm f/5.6 (which needs to be stopped down to f/8 to get good results), 1.4x with the 500mm f/4 to get to 700mm f/5.6 or 1.4x with the 600mm f/4 to get to 840mm f/5.6. Unfortunately, no other TC combination resulted in acceptably good autofocus performance and accuracy. So why do we need a dedicated 800mm f/5.6 lens, if one could get to 800mm with teleconverters? Because teleconverters degrade image quality (as proven in this article) and negatively affect AF performance and AF accuracy, whereas properly arranging optical elements inside the lens can yield maximum performance. So a true 800mm lens will always yield better results than a shorter lens with a teleconverter attached to it. In addition, with the latest generation Nikon DSLRs that can autofocus at small apertures up to f/8, one could get even longer focal lengths with a separate teleconverter. Which is exactly what Nikon did with the 800mm that ships with the TC800-1.25E teleconverter, providing 200mm of additional magnification. Sounds like an overkill, but it has its uses – whether in sport, news, wildlife photography or other special needs.

Since the lens is produced in very limited quantities, I knew that I had to order it quickly through B&H and then place a request order via Nikon Professional Services (NPS) to avoid months of waiting. After about a month, the package finally arrived and I started preparing for my trip to Yellowstone National Park. I try to visit Yellowstone several times a year, because it is a very picturesque location for nature photography. And being in love with wildlife photography, I just could not think of another place to visit in the continental US that offered access to such a variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears and wolves. If you have been to Yellowstone in mid-summer before, you know that it can get quite challenging to photograph wildlife from the road with telephoto lenses. Wildlife tends to move away from the heat, cars and people in the summer, so bears and wolves only typically become active during early mornings or late afternoons. And that in itself becomes a challenge, because you also need a camera that can handle low light environments well.

Black and White Wolves

NIKON D3S + 800mm f/5.6 @ 1000mm, ISO 6400, 1/800, f/7.1

After sunset (100% image crop): Nikon D3s + 800mm + 1.25x TC (1000mm), ISO 6400, 1/800s, f/7.1

Armed with a couple of Nikon D3s and D4 camera bodies, along with the 800mm Nikkor monster + teleconverters, I felt like I was ready for the challenge. So with very minimum preparation, my good friend Tom Redd and I started our journey to Yellowstone National Park.

1) First Things First

Before mounting this lens on your Nikon DSLR for the first time, absolutely make sure that you update the firmware to the latest version. Nikon already provided firmware updates for the Nikon D4, D3s, D3X, D3, D700, D300, D300s and D7000 to support this specific lens. If you forget to do it, autofocus speed, accuracy and subject tracking will suffer greatly and you will be quickly frustrated with the lens. You can download the latest firmware from this page from the Nikon USA Support section.

Western Kingbird Taking Off

NIKON D4 @ 800mm, ISO 1600, 1/1600, f/7.1

2) Lens Specifications

Main Features:

  1. FX-format compatible, super-telephoto single-focal-length lens with a focal length of 800 mm (the longest among AF NIKKORs) and a maximum aperture of f/5.6
  2. Fluorite (x2), ED glass (x2) and Nano Crystal Coat are employed, realizing high optical performance with minimal chromatic aberration
  3. 1.25x AF-S Teleconverter, AF-S TELECONVERTER TC800-1.25E ED that employs an ED glass element is supplied as a dedicated teleconverter (focal length is extended to 1000 mm with effective maximum aperture of f/7.1)
  4. Electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism is incorporated for enhanced stability in auto exposure control during continuous shooting even when the teleconverter is used (Not compatible with the D2 series, D1 series, D200, D100, D90, D80, D70 series, D3000, D60, D50, D40 series, 35mm film cameras)
  5. VR function that provides the effect equivalent to a shutter speed 4.5 stops faster
Moose Portrait

NIKON D3S + 800mm f/5.6 @ 800mm, ISO 3200, 1/1600, f/5.6

Technical Specifications:

  1. Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
  2. Focal Length: 800mm
  3. Maximum Aperture: f/5.6
  4. Minimum Aperture f/32
  5. Format: FX/35mm
  6. Maximum Angle of View: (DX-format) 2°
  7. Maximum Angle of View: (FX-format) 3°10′
  8. Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 1/6.6x
  9. Lens Elements: 20
  10. Lens Groups: 13
  11. Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, 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: 2
  17. Super Integrated Coating: Yes
  18. Autofocus: Yes
  19. AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
  20. Internal Focusing: Yes
  21. Minimum Focus Distance: 5.9m
  22. Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Manual/Auto, Auto/Manual
  23. G-type: Yes
  24. Filter Size: 52mm
  25. Accepts Filter Type: Slip-in
  26. Dimensions (Approx.): 160mm x 461mm
  27. Weight (Approx.): 4,590g
  28. Supplied Accessories: AF-S Teleconverter TC800-1.25E ED, Slip-on Front Lens Cap, HK-38 Lens Hood, LF-4 Rear Lens Cap, 52mm Screw-on NC Filter, LN-2 Lens Strap, CT-801 Trunk Case, Monopod Collar
Bird with a bug

NIKON D4 + 800mm f/5.6 @ 800mm, ISO 3200, 1/1000, f/8.0

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

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