Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S Focus Speed and Performance
The Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 autofocuses extremely fast, among the fastest I’ve ever used from the Z system. I did not find that engaging the focusing limiter was necessary most of the time; this lens is not prone to slow hunting. With the 1.4x teleconverter, focus speed remains high, but it becomes less consistent and occasionally hunts with low-contrast subjects. As for the 2x teleconverter, it’s slower to focus and often hunts a bit; I found it to be a frustrating combo to use. (This is due to the f/11 maximum aperture.)
Teleconverter performance aside, I give the autofocus of this lens full marks. For the photo below, I was able to track the world’s fastest animal, the peregrine falcon, when it was flying toward the camera – with the Nikon Z7 II, not even the Z9. I probably should have used a 1/3200 shutter speed to freeze that last bit of motion blur, but the focus point is perfect. Simply put, this would not have been possible without such a fast-focusing lens.
One of my favorite parts about the Nikon Z 100-400mm is its excellent close-focusing distance. With a maximum magnification of 0.38x, you’re almost in macro photography territory, and you can fill the frame with something that’s 3.7 inches / 9.3 cm wide. (Add the 1.4x or 2.0x teleconverter and that improves even further.) Just as important, you can stand nice and far from your subject at 400mm, giving you a great working distance – which makes it harder to scare away skittish creatures like dragonflies. For many photographers, the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S will negate the need for a dedicated macro lens.
The Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S has low distortion throughout the zoom range. Here’s a full chart showing the distortion at each focal length, including with the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters (560mm and 800mm in the chart below):
The highest distortion of 1.95% at 200mm is worth fixing if you’re photographing architecture, but it’s still on the low side of things. By comparison, the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 maxes out at 1.93%, also at 200mm! It’s a very similar performance between these two lenses.
I should point out that many photographers will never see this distortion in the first place, depending on the corrections that are enabled in your post-processing software. In Lightroom, the distortion profile for the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S can be disabled with some cameras (like the Z9) and is permanently enabled with others (like the original Z6 and Z7).
In uncorrected images, the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S has low levels of vignetting. By a slight margin, the worst vignetting we measured was at 300mm and infinity focus, and of course, it improves as you stop down. Here’s a full chart of vignetting levels, including with both teleconverters:
The highest value of 1.27 stops of vignetting is already on the low side. Plus, at most focal lengths and aperture values, the vignetting is under one stop – the point at which I consider it negligible. Great performance!
If you’re a Lightroom user, keep in mind that Adobe’s lens profile for the Z 100-400mm directly reads information from your in-camera vignetting reduction setting. If you want your photos from this lens to have full corrections by default, you need to turn the vignetting correction to “High” in-camera, even if you’re shooting .NEF files. I recommend turning the in-camera corrections to “Medium” or “High” to minimize your post-production work.
Here’s an example of the maximum level of vignetting you’ll see on this lens, uncorrected:
There’s a pretty low amount of chromatic aberration on the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S, especially at the wider focal lengths. At 400mm, it jumps up somewhat. The teleconverters (which are shown as 560mm and 800mm in the chart below, for the 1.4x and 2x TCs respectively) magnify the problem a bit further. Here’s the chart:
Anything under about one pixel of lateral chromatic aberration is almost impossible to notice in real-world images, even with chromatic aberration corrections turned off. The Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S hovers around that one-pixel level from 100mm to 300mm, which is excellent performance. Although it’s higher at 400mm (and 560mm and 800mm with the TCs), it still never reaches concerning levels.
Over the past year, I’ve tested five copies of this lens in the field, as well as four copies of the Nikon Z 2.0x teleconverter and five copies of the 1.4x teleconverter. I found there to be negligible sample variation, with both the lens and (more surprisingly) the teleconverters.
What about the results in the lab, though? In short, the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S is one of the sharpest zoom lenses that we’ve ever tested at Photography Life, particularly at the wider focal lengths. Here’s how it performs at 100mm:
This is very strong performance throughout the aperture range, aside from the usual dip in sharpness at f/16 due to diffraction. In the center, the sharpest aperture is wide-open at f/4.5, whereas the corners are sharpest around f/5.6 to f/8.
As with 100mm, the performance at 200mm is very strong on the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S. I measure the sharpest aperture in the center to be f/5.6, although wide-open at f/5.0 is close. The midframe and corners are quite sharp, too, although 100mm was a bit better.
Sharpness is still very high at 300mm, albeit with a slight dip compared to 200mm. The center is sharpest wide-open at f/5.3 (and the same is true at f/5.6, which I didn’t put in the chart above because it was essentially identical to f/5.3). Taking corner sharpness into account, f/8 is the optimal aperture at 300mm. Once you stop down to f/11, the lens at 300mm is just as sharp as it was at the wider focal lengths. The 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 is really putting up an impressive performance.
Now here’s 400mm:
At 400mm, the overall performance is weaker, but it’s still good. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the maximum aperture of f/5.6, although landscape photographers who want sharper corners would ideally stop down to f/8 or f/11. (At 400mm, your depth of field is so narrow that I recommend stopping down to f/11-16 for landscape photography anyway.)
What about teleconverter performance? As expected, the sharpness drops some with the 1.4x and 2.0x Nikon Z teleconverters, although it’s still quite usable. Here’s how 560mm measures up – in other words, with the 1.4x teleconverter applied to the 400mm focal length:
That’s definitely a drop compared to 400mm, but it’s still solid relative to a typical lens. The sharpest aperture at this point is f/11, but even wide open at f/8 produces good results in the center. The corners do take a hit, but we’ve tested worse. There’s a bit of focus shift and field curvature, but it’s due to the teleconverter more than the lens.
Finally, here’s the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S when using the 2x teleconverter to reach 800mm:
There’s a further drop in sharpness at this point, and the maximum aperture is f/11, so using the 100-400mm with a 2x teleconverter isn’t something I’d normally recommend. But if you need such an extreme focal length in a pinch, it’s an option.
Overall, the sharpness performance is very impressive with the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S. The teleconverters are usable, especially the 1.4x TC, but I wouldn’t attach them on a whim. It’s really the bare lens that shines. That will become clearer on the next page of this review, where I compare this performance head-to-head against some of Nikon’s other telephoto options.
Bokeh is another word for the qualities of the background blur in a photo. “Good” bokeh is completely subjective, since different photographers have their own preferences for how the background blur looks. That said, photographers commonly want their background blur to be soft, not distracting. Out-of-focus highlights that are round, uniform, and soft-edged are usually considered favorable.
As a telephoto lens, the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S will tend to produce out-of-focus backgrounds unless you focus near infinity. To my eye, the bokeh is very pleasant throughout the zoom range. Here are a few examples with crops, starting with an example at 300mm:
Nice and smooth! The next photo shows a typical wildlife example with bright out-of-focus highlights at 400mm. The lens renders them extremely well:
Here’s another example at 400mm, this time showing the the slight “cat’s eye” look in the corners:
Although some photographers don’t like the cat’s eye look (where bokeh in the corners is more of a sharp oval than a circle), it doesn’t bother me at this level. So far, the bokeh of the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S is really pleasant.
But maybe that’s just true because we’re at 400mm? Not at all – here’s an example at 100mm:
Although the bokeh here has slightly more defined edges, and there’s still the cat’s eye look, the overall performance remains great to my eye. Out-of-focus highlights are nice and smooth, not distracting at all.
What if you attach a teleconverter? At that point, the quality of the bokeh takes a drop. That’s the TC’s fault, not the lens’s, but I bring it up because many photographers intend to use the 100-400mm with a teleconverter (especially the 1.4x TC). Here’s an example with each Nikon Z teleconverter, starting with the 1.4x TC:
As you can see, the edges get more defined, giving the bokeh a relatively busy look. I also got plenty of photos with the 1.4x TC where the bokeh looks perfectly good – the further out of focus it is, the better it looks (no surprise there).
Finally, here it is with the 2.0x TC:
To my eye, this is the worst of the bunch. The edges are very sharply defined, and the photo almost looks like I took it using a mirror lens, with out-of-focus “donuts” in the background.
Keep in mind that the distracting bokeh in these last two examples is only seen with the teleconverters. The lens itself has smooth and creamy bokeh, and it gets very high marks from me.
Backlighting and Flare
In backlit situations, telephoto lenses tend to be prone to flare, ghosting, and loss of contrast. The Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 does much better than most telephotos in this regard. Here’s what you’ll see with the bare sun in the corner of the frame, from 100mm to 400mm:
Considering that this is a long, complex telephoto lens, this is a fantastic result. In normal backlit situations, the results are closer to the following image – no loss of contrast at all:
It’s even possible to put the sun directly in the frame so long as it’s closer to sunrise or sunset. (Be very careful of your camera sensor; don’t leave it pointed at the sun.) I don’t notice any flare at all in these photos, just atmospheric haze:
Overall, the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 does an excellent job when you point it at bright lights. It’s a great lens for photographing any backlit subjects, from landscape to wildlife photography.
Spencer: It’s hard to find better optical performance than this in a supertelephoto zoom. I can’t point to any significant weak spots unless you start attaching the teleconverters.
Nasim: Nikon’s S-line zooms have been something special so far. This one easily joins the ranks of the 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8 in optical performance.
Spencer: The sharpness at 300mm and 400mm is a bit weaker than it was at 100-200mm. Should that deter anyone?
Nasim: No, it’s still very good, unless you plan to stick to 400mm 100% of the time. Then the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 would be a very compelling alternative.
The next page of this review dives into the other lenses that Nikon users may be considering. So, click the menu below to go to “Lens Comparisons”:
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