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.
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”.
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.
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.
2) Lens Specifications
- 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
- Fluorite (x2), ED glass (x2) and Nano Crystal Coat are employed, realizing high optical performance with minimal chromatic aberration
- 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)
- 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)
- VR function that provides the effect equivalent to a shutter speed 4.5 stops faster
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length: 800mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/5.6
- Minimum Aperture f/32
- Format: FX/35mm
- Maximum Angle of View: (DX-format) 2°
- Maximum Angle of View: (FX-format) 3°10′
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 1/6.6x
- Lens Elements: 20
- Lens Groups: 13
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, 35mm Film
- VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- Nano Crystal Coat: Yes
- ED Glass Elements: 2
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 5.9m
- Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Manual/Auto, Auto/Manual
- G-type: Yes
- Filter Size: 52mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Slip-in
- Dimensions (Approx.): 160mm x 461mm
- Weight (Approx.): 4,590g
- 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
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with an MTF chart and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
3) Lens Handling
Super telephoto lenses can be tough to handle due to their sheer size and weight. When I first heard about the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 lens, I thought it would be a heavy beast and bigger than the 600mm f/4 VR. To my surprise, the 800mm turned out to be a lighter lens that is just slightly longer than the 600mm. And when you attach lens hoods (which you should) on both lenses, there is practically no difference in length due to the longer double hood of the 600mm f/4. Here is how the lens compares to other super telephoto lenses (from left to right: 800mm, 600mm, 500mm):
As you can see, the 800mm is only a tad taller than the 600mm. The barrel is also mostly thinner in diameter, which is great for handling purposes. The nice thing about the 800mm, is that its hood is a single unit, just like on the 500mm f/4 and shorter telephoto lenses. The Nikon 600mm f/4 has a large double hood, which is a pain to attach – you first have to attach the smaller hood, then attach the larger hood to the smaller one. I know a number of photographers that only carry one of the hoods, because it is just not very practical to attach two hoods when working in the field.
The best part of the lens is certainly its weight and balance. At 4,590 grams, it is lighter than both the Nikon 600mm f/4 (5,060g) and the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 (4,620g)! In addition, thanks to the lighter fluorite elements on the front part of the lens, the lens is not as front-heavy as the 600mm anymore. The balance is now more distributed across the lens, which makes the 800mm easier to move and hand-hold. Note that the tripod foot is reversed now, proving this point. So from the weight, balance and size perspective, the 800mm f/5.6 has a definite advantage over the 600mm f/4 VR.
Now I am not trying to say that the 800mm f/5.6 is easily hand-holdable. I did hand-hold the lens quite a bit in Yellowstone, but my arms got tired pretty quickly, so I had to move the lens to a sturdy tripod with a Gimbal head when photographing for extended periods of time. Still, those that can hand-hold the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G should know that the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 is about the same in terms of weight. And without a doubt, it handles much better than the 600mm! Here is a shot of a grizzly that I captured hand-held at 800mm:
The only thing to look out for is the shutter speed – at 800mm, the focal length is the same as shooting with the 400mm f/2.8 + 2x teleconverter. Camera shake is much more noticeable at such focal lengths and even VR might not be able to save your shots if your shutter speed is too low. If you plan on buying this lens, I would seriously consider investing in a very stable tripod, a big Gimbal head and a replacement Arca Swiss quick release foot. I personally recommend the Gitzo Systematic tripod, Wimberley WH-200 Gimbal head and the Really Right Stuff replacement foot. A quick note – if you are replacing an older super telephoto lens that you already bought a replacement foot for, then do not worry about buying a new one for the 800mm. I used the Really Right Stuff foot from my Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR and it worked perfectly!
Once you get the lens mounted and balanced on a Gimbal head, turning it left/right or up/down is very easy and intuitive. The last thing you want to do is mount an $18K lens on a $100 tripod. While the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR is well protected against occasional bumps, it probably will not survive a drop from a tripod, so keep this mind and invest in a good and stable tripod system. And don’t forget the LensCoat cover for protection. I use LensCoat on my Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR and it certainly does a very good job in not only protecting the lens, but also in keeping my hands warm when shooting in cold temperatures. And as you can see from the photo of the three lenses above, both the 600mm and the 500mm are protected by the LensCoat products. In a way, LensCoat has pretty much become the industry standard for super telephoto lenses.
If you have a lighter camera body like the Nikon D800, I suggest attaching a camera grip for better balance. I am sure most photographers will be shooting with a professional camera like Nikon D3s/D4, which already balance very well on a Gimbal head.
As expected with all exotic telephotos, the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR is a rugged professional lens designed to withstand physical abuse in all kinds of environments and tough weather conditions. Although it was pretty warm and sometimes even very hot in Yellowstone during the day, nights and early mornings typically saw drastic drops in temperatures. I was a little worried about how fluorite elements would perform in such an environment, so I paid extra attention to its behavior during temperature peaks. I am happy to say that the lens handled it very well and I did not notice any odd behavior or changes in its performance.
When it comes to manual focus operation, the focus ring is very smooth and easy to operate. It is very large and pretty convenient to use when you need to override focus. When you move the focus ring and reach the focus limit, the ring continues rotation with no resistance in either direction. There are lots of different switches on the side of the lens, like on other super telephotos. The first one is the three way A/M, M/A and M switch to move between different focus modes. The second one is a focus limiter switch that goes from FULL to ∞-10m. Unlike most other super telephotos, this lens has a VR switch! Finally, no more annoying VR ring (which I never liked). The three way VR switch allows you to go from OFF, to NORMAL, to ACTIVE. NORMAL is what you should be using all the time, unless you are on a moving platform such as a boat – that’s when you switch to ACTIVE. The fourth switch toggles between AF-L, MEMORY RECALL and AF-ON. These switches control the behavior of the four buttons on lens (in front front of the focus ring). When set to AF-L, the camera will lock focus; MEMORY RECALL moves focus to the previously set spot; AF-ON will force the camera to re-engage autofocus, just like the AF-ON button on the back of your camera. The last Beep / No Beep switch is there to indicate if focus operation was successful. You won’t hear the beep when the switch is set to AF-L; only when it is set to either MEMORY RECALL or AF-ON (and AF is successful).
As indicated earlier, the HK-38 carbon fiber hood comes in a single long piece, which attaches securely to the lens via a single knob on the side of the lens hood. To reduce flare and protect the front of the lens, I suggest leaving it on the lens at all times when shooting in the field.
The luxurious CT-801 Trunk Case the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR comes in is made of highly durable aluminum and it does a great job at protecting the lens during transport. It had better, with its $600 retail price tag! While the case is very nice, I prefer something more lightweight and compact. I am sure we will soon be seeing bags from various manufacturers specifically designed to fit this lens (although any bag that can accommodate the 600mm f/4 lens should work).
As indicated earlier, the lens is fully weather-sealed for tough weather conditions – usual environments for sports, nature and wildlife photographers.
4) Electronic Aperture
When you remove the rear lens cap and inspect the lens, you will see that the lens has no aperture lever that is normally present on all modern Nikkor lenses. That’s because this lens actually does not have one – aperture is no longer physically controlled. Instead, the camera sends aperture information to the lens, which then sets the aperture to the desired size. That’s why it is called “Electromagnetic Diaphragm” and this is the first telephoto lens to get an “E” designation after the aperture number (Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E). Previously, Nikon incorporated electronic aperture control only on PC-E lenses, since mechanical control of aperture was not possible on those lenses due to the tilt/shift movements. But those lenses are also “D” type, which means that there is an aperture ring on the lens. Hence, the 800mm f/5.6 is the first hybrid of “G” and “E” types.
The idea of this electromagnetic diaphragm is to set the lens aperture consistently, from frame to frame. When a physical lever is used, there is always a chance of variance, especially when shooting at very fast frame rates. Keep in mind that the lens aperture is always set to the maximum aperture by default when a lens is mounted – that’s done to allow for phase detection autofocus system to work better, since it needs the most amount of light to operate properly. During the exposure, the camera sets the aperture to the desired size, then it opens it back up after the image is taken. This happens during every single exposure. So if you are photographing at extremely fast speeds like 10 frames per second on the D4 while stopping down the lens, the physical lever has to be physically moved each time. Naturally, as the number of frames per second increases, the accuracy of this lever can also potentially decrease between the shots. At such high speeds, you can imagine that the lever might not fully recover between each frame, which causes variances in set aperture. As a result, an image shot at f/11 might be actually taken at f/8 or somewhere in between, as an example. So you will see variances in sharpness, depth of field and there will obviously be exposure differences too.
The Electromagnetic Diaphragm basically eliminates this problem. The camera/lens levers are no longer used, so the aperture is set very quickly by the lens itself. Not only does it allow for extremely accurate apertures from frame to frame, but it also opens up opportunities for faster frames per second in professional cameras in the future. I am sure that we will see the same Electromagnetic Diaphragm on all future super telephoto lenses and when Nikon decides to refresh the 300, 400, 500 and 600mm lines.
And by the way, the aperture does indeed sound different on this lens. If you set your camera to Live View mode and change the aperture on a regular lens, both the camera and the lens produce an audible sound. On the 800mm, it is different – it sounds less noisy and more damped in comparison.
5) Autofocus Speed and Accuracy
Autofocus speed is nothing to complain about – it is extremely fast and silent, just like it is on other expensive super telephoto lenses. If you want to cut down the AF speed considerably, move the focus limiter switch from FULL to ∞-10m when photographing distant subjects. When set to FULL, telephoto lenses take almost twice longer to go from closest focus to infinity, while the focus limit switch restricts the ability to focus on objects closer than 10 meters, eliminating the extra rotations that slow down autofocus. Obviously, setting the switch to ∞-10m means that the lens will not be able to focus at subjects closer than 10 meters. But you do not have to worry about that, unless you are a photographing a very small bird up close. And if you are, keep in mind that f/5.6 at such close distances translates to extremely shallow depth of field. The closer you are, the more you have to stop down to bring the whole subject into focus. In fact, I found f/5.6 to be too shallow to photograph bears even at medium distances. When a bear filled my frame half way, I already knew that I was too close, so I often had to stop down to f/8-/f11 to get more into focus, or I had to physically move back.
Autofocus accuracy is also top notch, in line with what you get on 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses. At close distances, focus speed is phenomenal. At very long distances, atmospheric haze / thermal distortion can severely impact AF accuracy – more on this further down.
6) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
There is a reason why Nikon charges $18K for this lens – there is simply no equivalent to such a lens in Nikkor’s super telephoto line in terms of sharpness and contrast. No matter what combination you try, whether you couple the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 with the 2x teleconverter, the 500mm with the 1.7x TC or the 600mm with the 1.4x, none of them are even remotely capable of resolving what the 800mm can, as demonstrated later on in the review. And this is pretty evident when looking at the MTF chart of the lens:
If you do not know how to interpret the above chart, I wrote a pretty extensive article on how to read MTF charts. With such a flat-like MTF curve, this lens basically suits the definition of a “perfect lens”. In comparison, even the superb Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II does not show the same type of optical performance. I don’t know if it is the design of the lens or the fluorite elements that are the reason for this, but according to the manufacturer, there is nothing from Nikon that performs close to what the 800mm f/5.6 is capable of. And I do not know of any other lens made to date by lens manufacturers that can make such a claim for lens performance. When I initially saw this chart, I knew that the Nikkor 800mm would be something very special, something we have never seen before. So when the lens finally arrived, I could not wait to test its MTF performance in my Imatest lab. Even before I started testing the lens, I had very high expectations, since the sharpness and contrast I saw in images from Yellowstone just blew me away. Whether I was shooting with the Nikon D4 or the high-resolution D800E, the lens delivered crisp details at the pixel level. Just take a look at the below shot of a great gray owl, captured by Tom on a cloudy day:
And then take a look at a 100% crop of the above shot:
The details speak for themselves – each individual feather is distinguishable, which is what we photographers commonly refer to as “tack sharp”. The image was captured at 1/320th of a second @ f/5.6. The owl was far enough to comfortably shoot at f/5.6, but note the slow shutter speed of 1/320 – the lens was mounted on a tripod and VR was turned on to prevent camera shake.
However, the moment I put together my lab and started shooting, I realized that something was very wrong – I was not getting results anywhere close to my expectations. Results were coming out inconsistent and sharpness varied greatly from shot to shot. At best, the results I got were about twice as bad as I got from the 300mm f/2.8 lens. How could that be? When I opened images and viewed them at 100%, it did not take very long for me to realize that camera shake was the sole reason for such bad performance. And that’s despite the fact that I had the lens set up on a very sturdy ballhead mounted on a big Gitzo tripod. Believe it or not, but I later spent about two weeks trying to develop a methodology for testing such long lenses. It was a very challenging task and after I was done, I understood why most review sites never publish their results from testing long lenses, or do not even bother testing them in the first place. And I can tell you that anyone who claims to have been actually able to quantify the performance of such long lenses without using a monstrous optical bench (which does not exist as far as I know) probably has bad / wrong results. I do not want to make any accusations, but let me just state out a simple fact – at 300mm and higher, even the slightest micro vibrations result in enough blur to invalidate the results. You might not see it in the image even when examining closely at 100%, but the software does. Those micro vibrations multiply like crazy as the focal length of the lens is increased. At 400mm or more, it becomes an impossible task to measure sharpness with a typical continuous light setup in a lab environment. And it does not matter how stable your tripod and the tripod head are – even the most expensive setups will create too much vibration. One would need a custom rail system with a plate that spans across the lens extending to the camera, with special vibration-absorption mechanisms to reduce vibrations. And even then it would probably not be enough to accurately measure such long lenses, since the setup would still most likely not be stable enough. One possible solution to this would be to do measurements on a camera that has no mirrors and no shutter mechanism. However, Imatest scores are tied to both the camera and the lens, so if I were to swap the camera body, it would invalidate all other lens measurements. In short, it is simply impossible to quantify lens performance with a traditional continuous light setup, no matter how bright the lights are. The method I developed turned out to be quite complex and involves flash – the only method in my opinion that would yield more or less accurate results.
7) Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR MTF Performance
Once I figured it all out with the proper testing methodology, I had to re-test everything from scratch. It took me an additional week of lab testing, which is why this review took me so long to write. But I am proud of my accomplishments, because I can confidently measure super telephoto lens performance and I have been able to prepare all the data I need for the 200-400mm, 300mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses – with reviews to be posted soon after this one.
Here is the final MTF result from Imatest:
As you can see, the performance of the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E VR is incredible wide open. There are some wide angle and telephoto lenses that can reach this level of sharpness in the center, but none can truly match such high performance throughout the frame. The mid-frame is a tad worse than the center and the corners are outstanding.
8) Thermal Distortion
One thing that you absolutely have to watch out for when using such long lenses is thermal distortion, also known as “atmospheric haze” or “heat distortion”. Those who shoot with 600mm lenses know this very well, since they see it quite a bit too, especially when using teleconverters. I forgot about thermal distortion during the first day of shooting and I was getting frustrated when my photos lacked details and looked blurry. At first, I thought it was my bad hand-holding technique. Then I tried everything from increasing my shutter speed to setting the lens on a tripod. Nothing changed. Then I thought that perhaps the lens needed to be tuned for my camera. I played with AF Fine Tune a bit and again, nothing improved my images. I had no issues with sharpness at close distances, so I knew that I could not blame it on badly calibrated setup. And this was all happening on a hot sunny summer day in Yellowstone! When we spotted an Osprey nest a mile away from the road later in the day, we stopped and I decided to experiment with the Nikon teleconverters (read more on teleconverters below). I attached the Nikon TC-17E II to the lens and I was able to actually see the effect of thermal distortion through the viewfinder. The heat was not coming from the ground, because there was a deep canyon between where I stood and where the osprey nest was – it was in the air! And when I tried the Nikon TC-20E III on the lens, the thermal distortion was even more obvious at 1600mm! Just take a look at what the image looked like when I captured it:
Every image that I captured varied in blur, because the heat waves were moving all over the place. Obviously, all images were a blurry mess, but it reminded me very well about what thermal distortion can do to images. So keep this in mind when shooting with such lens. At 800mm and 2° angle of view, the magnification is so high, that it literally fools you to think that you should be able to get sharp photos every time. When you look through the viewfinder, it looks perfect. And then you take a shot and view at 100%, only to see that it was not. After realizing this, I stopped blaming the gear and knew that it was totally my fault for not thinking about it in the first place.
One of the strengths of long telephoto lenses is the beautiful, creamy bokeh they are able to produce. On top of that, due to the shallow depth of field, subjects can be isolated very effectively, resulting in very smooth backgrounds. As with all other super telephoto lenses, bokeh on the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR is remarkable. Background highlights are rendered very smoothly and have no defined edges that can look distracting. The quality of blur is very similar to what one would get with exotic 300mm, 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses. When photographing with this lens, I only stopped it down in order to increase depth of field and even at f/11, the lens produced very smooth bokeh.
10) Vignetting / Light Falloff
There is a little bit of vignetting present at f/5.6, but it is not distracting as it can be on super wide angle lenses and most other telephotos. Once you stop down to f/8 and smaller, vignetting is practically absent. Take a look at the following results produced by Imatest:
And here is the visualization of the worst case scenario:
11) Ghosting and Flare
The large and long hood on the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR is there for a reason. Most long-range telephoto lenses, including the 800mm, do not perform well when shot against a bright light source. So, if you shoot against the sun, you might get some large, nasty flares and plenty of ghosting, which is quite normal. The integrated “Nano Crystal Coat” certainly helps in reducing ghosting and flare, but does not eliminate it in any way. In fact, Nano coating is mostly good for increasing contrast on telephoto lenses.
Distortion is practically non-existent on this lens. If you put up straight lines on the wall and photograph them, you might see a very minimal amount of pincushion distortion, which is normal. And it is even less noticeable on cropped-sensor cameras. Distortion is generally not a problem, because it can be easily fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom using the Lens Corrections module.
Imatest measured a very slight amount of pincushion distortion, at -0.57.
13) Vibration Reduction
As I have already pointed out in the beginning of this review, the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR comes with the latest generation Vibration Reduction system that Nikon claims allows shooting with up to 4.5 times slower shutter speeds while retaining sharpness. This VR system is essentially the same as VR III used on the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR, except Nikon claims 4.5 stops versus 5. I believe the reason why the lens is rated half a stop worse than VR on the 70-200mm f/4, is because of the focal length of the lens. Again, at 800mm, the lens is very prone to a lot of camera shake, so VR can only do so much to compensate it. Still, 4.5 stops of compensation is a lot! In my field tests, I got very good results at 1/250-1/500 of a second, with mostly keepers. So for up to two stops less than the focal length of the lens, you can shoot with confidence, even hand-held. Shooting at slower shutter speeds is quite difficult due to camera shake and the number of keepers obviously goes down quite a bit. Still, if you mount the lens on a Gimbal head and use a good lens holding technique, you could get sharp photos at much slower shutter speeds like 1/60. So in my experience, VR can be effective up to 4 stops max. Obviously, adding teleconverters will certainly affect VR’s effectiveness. As I have pointed out earlier, it is very difficult to control all the micro vibrations at extreme focal lengths.
The lens will automatically detect if it is on a tripod and will compensate for camera shake accordingly. I mostly shot with Vibration Reduction set to “Normal”, but also turned it off when using very fast shutter speeds. See this article to understand why you should first let the lens stabilize when shooting with VR on and why you should turn VR off when shooting at very fast shutter speeds.
The above image is as-is, without any cropping applied. The bear was so close, that I was able to fill the frame with just its head at 800mm. Hand-held, VR turned off, 1/1600, f/8.
14) Performance with the Nikon TC800-1.25E ED teleconverter
The Nikon 800mm f/5.6 is the first lens that is shipped together with a teleconverter. The Nikon TC800-1.25E ED is a 1.25x teleconverter build specifically for this lens. I tried to mount it on the 500mm f/4G VR lens as an experiment and it would not mount, so it will only work with the 800mm lens. At 1.25x, it will increase the focal length of the lens to 1000mm, which is insane! Obviously you do lose some light with the teleconverter, so the maximum aperture decreases from f/5.6 to f/7.1. Still, 1000mm is a lot of focal length! The TC800-1.25E is so good optically, that you lose very little sharpness with this combo. However, your shutter speed, lens handling technique and thermal distortion are even more important at 1000mm, so keep that in mind. I used the Nikon D3s and D4 with the 1.25x TC and while autofocus seemed to work well on both cameras in good lighting conditions, the Nikon D4 seemed to be better in AF accuracy. I was not surprised to see this, since the D4 comes with a superior “Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX” AF system, which works with lenses up to f/8 maximum aperture.
Here is how Imatest measured the MTF performance of the lens, when the TC800-1.25E ED teleconverter is mounted on it:
There is definitely a drop in sharpness, but the resolution figures still stay above 3000, which is very good. Looks like the teleconverter hurts the performance of the lens in the corners the most.
15) Performance with the Nikon TC-14E II teleconverter
I also used the Nikon TC-14E II (1.4x) teleconverter quite a bit. The lens performed well optically, but AF was less reliable than with the 1.25x TC, especially on the D3s. With the 1.4x TC, it is a 1120mm f/8 lens, so I would only recommend to use this combo with the latest generation Nikon DSLRs that can handle AF with f/8 lenses. Let’s take a look at how the lens performed with the TC-14E II:
There is definitely a bigger drop in sharpness with the TC-14E II. The wide open performance of the lens drops a bit, with f/11 producing the best overall sharpness.
16) Performance with the Nikon TC-17E II teleconverter
The Nikon TC-17E II (1.7x) went on the lens once, because it was difficult to work with. At 1360mm f/9.5, it was not only difficult to get AF to work reliably (even on the D4), but it was also too difficult to properly handle the setup. Even slight vibrations are visible at 1360mm and the sharpness impact seems to be too great. Here are the Imatest MTF measurement results:
I would not recommend to use this lens with the TC-17E II, unless you absolutely need the reach.
17) Performance with the Nikon TC-20E III teleconverter
At 1600mm f/11, this combo is just not practical for the same reasons. Autofocus will fail, even when shooting in daylight conditions. Sharpness is also impacted greatly, as can be seen from the below chart:
Still, if you are after the most reach and you are OK with trying to adjust the focus ring manually, you might be pleased with what this lens can achieve at 1600mm. At such long focal length, you will be battling more with vibrations than with the focus! Even touching the lens will shake everything really badly. I experimented with the TC-20E III for fun when photographing the full moon and here is what I was able to capture:
If you would like to see the moon in its full glory in wallpaper resolution, download this file and check it out! You can even see the stars behind the moon. Another shot of the moon in waning gibbous state can be seen at the end of the review.
Let’s now move on to the good stuff – Comparisons to other super telephoto lenses.
18) Compared to Nikon 500mm f/4G VR
Let’s see how the lens compares to the Nikon 500mm f/4G at similar focal lengths. With the TC-14E II and TC-17E II, the 500mm can get to 700mm and 850mm, subsequently. Here is how the two lenses compare at 700mm and 800mm:
The Nikon 500mm f/4G VR is a very sharp lens. However, with the TC-14E II, its sharpness cannot be compared to the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR. The latter is sharper across the frame, as evidenced from the above chart. And that’s not even comparing the lenses at the same focal lengths!
Let’s see what happens when the 500mm f/4 is coupled with the TC-17E II (850mm vs 800mm):
Once again, there is no comparison between the two – the 800mm is clearly much sharper. The 500mm + TC-17E II combo gives 850mm effective focal length, but there is too much of a drop in sharpness. In addition, as many 500mm f/4 owners will testify, the lens just does not couple well with the TC-17E II, due to AF performance and accuracy issues for fast-moving subjects.
19) Compared to Nikon 600mm f/4G VR
Thanks to John Lawson (who happens to be a phenomenal wildlife photographer right here in Denver), I was able to obtain the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR for testing. With the TC-14E II, the Nikon 600mm f/4 can get to 840mm. Let’s take a look at how the two compare at similar focal lengths:
Again, just like the Nikon 500mm f/4, the 600mm f/4 cannot match the performance of the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR. Interestingly, the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR does not seem to like the TC-14E II as much as the Nikon 500mm f/4G VR does. While the full data for the Nikon 500mm and 600mm lenses will be published in their own reviews, here is an interesting fact to note – the Nikon 500mm f/4 tested sharper than the 600mm f/4. At first, I thought that something was wrong with my testing, but then I tested the same setup over 15 times and the result came out the same. Variance in sharpness is not very big, but it is there, especially when using teleconverters.
What if one were to attach the Nikon TC-17E II to the 600mm (1020mm) and compare it to the 800mm + TC800-1.25E (1000mm)? While the 600mm is tough to use with the TC-17E II, especially in autofocus speed and accuracy, it can produce decent results when used on the latest generation Nikon DSLRs (D7100, D600, D800 and D4) that can handle autofocus at f/8. Actually, let’s throw in the Nikon 500mm f/4G VR with the TC-20E III (also 1000mm) to the mix and see how the three compare side by side:
The Nikon 500mm f/4G VR suffers quite a bit from the TC-20E III. Sharpness levels are pretty low throughout the frame, even when stopped down to f/11. The Nikon 600mm f/4G VR + TC-17E II combo is a little better, but still needs to be stopped down at least to f/8 to get acceptable results. The Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR + TC800-1.25E is the champ here – its sharpness is much higher than the other two – even at the maximum aperture of f/7.1. Amazing performance for sure!
The Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR is yet another superb piece of engineering art. While it does have its own inconveniences like heavy weight and bulky construction, it is the longest lens in the modern Nikon super telephoto line, beating the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR not only in focal length, but also in weight, being 500 grams lighter. In fact, the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 is the first Nikon lens to truly rival Canon super telephoto lenses. Canon has been using the lighter fluorite lenses in its high-end lenses for a while now, along with magnesium alloy construction for lighter weight, so they typically weigh 500 grams to 1 kilogram lighter in comparison, which is a big difference. This is true for pretty much every super telephoto lens from 300mm and up, as demonstrated in this article. The Nikon 800mm is the first Nikkor lens to seriously challenge the Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS USM in terms of weight (being about 100 grams heavier). There is still a huge price difference between the two (the Canon 800mm f/5.6L is about $4650 cheaper), but this difference will probably shrink a bit overtime. Also, I seriously doubt that the Canon 800mm f/5.6L would outperform its Nikon counterpart optically.
At the same time, the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 delivers unrivaled performance. As I have demonstrated in this review, nothing in Nikon’s line can match the performance of the lens at similar focal lengths. Its performance at the maximum aperture is amazing, even with the included TC800-1.25E teleconverter. The lens also couples well with the TC-14E II teleconverter, although I would only recommend it with the latest generation Nikon DSLRs that can maintain autofocus up to f/8.
Overall, I am extremely impressed by the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR. It definitely deserves the highest praises for its optical performance and without a doubt, would be a dream lens for many of us. However, at its current price tag of $18K, the 800mm will not fit the bill for many sports and wildlife photographers. Considering the $10K price tag for the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR and the hand-holdable 500mm f/4G VR at $8K+, one has to wonder if the 800mm is worth the price of these two lenses…
21) Where to buy and availability
You can order your copy of the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR lens at B&H for $17,896 (as of 09/01/2013).
22) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Nikon 800mm f/5.6 VR
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating