Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to go to the tropical Andes with two great companions. I’m not referring to the group of nice people who went with me to photograph the wonders of the local nature. I’m talking about the two 400mm telephoto lenses we took along.
You may have read about my experience with the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 a few weeks ago. Now I’d like to share with you my field experience with the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S.
Table of Contents
It’s stating the obvious to say that this lens is well-built. That’s sort of expected in the price range that this lens falls in, at $14,000.
But as massive and sturdy as the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 lens appears visually, it manages to avoid excessive weight. Quite the contrary! For several generations in a row, we have seen the weight of Nikon’s super-telephoto lenses decrease. Let me demonstrate this trend with a few milestones.
In 1994, Nikon introduced the first autofocus-equipped AF-I 400mm f/2.8D ED-IF lens. Only the fittest photographers could carry this 6.6 kilo (14.5 pound) monster in the field. Shooting handheld with it? Forget it.
Twelve years later came the AF-S 400mm f/2.8G ED VR. Its weight was already a more bearable 4.62 kilos / 10.2 pounds.
Then in 2022, Nikon comes out with the current version, which weighs just 2.95 kilos / 6.5 pounds! You could carry two of these lenses for less than the weight of the 1994 lens alone.
This is a result that has undoubtedly made many photographers happy. Especially those whose biceps are not trained by daily hard work. Not to mention the airlines’ decreasing weight limits.
But back to durability. During the two weeks that I had the opportunity to field-test the lens, I didn’t encounter any conditions that would challenge it. Ordinary rain did not cause any problems for the lens sealing. The occasional drop on the front of the lens was very easy to clean up thanks to the Fluorine coating. (Although by consistent use of a deep lens hood, drops can be avoided quite easily.)
I did, however, come across one minor complaint about the durability of the lens. I’ve already mentioned it in previous articles, but let me repeat it. The weak point is the screw tightening the tripod collar. Its construction is quite delicate, and using too much force can damage the screw threads. The repair is easy and cheap, but it shouldn’t be something that needs mentioning at all.
Also, the plastic cap that protects the Kensington lock slot (hands up whoever uses it!) pops off far too often. If the lens were mine rather than a loaner, the cap would end up in the recycling bin the very first day.
So much for the pros and a few minor cons of build quality. But let’s now see how the lens handles in the field.
To say that the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S is light as a feather would probably be an exaggeration. That could perhaps be said of its younger f/4.5 sibling. Instead, as light as the 400mm f/2.8 is, it’s important to remember that it’s still a chunky lens. If for some reason you are averse to using a tripod or monopod, I recommend looking elsewhere.
On the other hand, compared to its aforementioned predecessors, handheld photography is certainly possible. Shooting all day long this way would be tiring, but I don’t hesitate to detach the lens from the tripod when the situation calls for it.
One example is the photo you see below. As I crawled through a polylepis thicket to photograph Tawny Antpitta, I found myself holding the camera with one hand, lens pointed forward. With the AF-S 400mm f/2.8G, I would have dislocated my wrist holding it this way. But it was possible with the Z version.
This brings us to the next feature, and that is the balance of the lens. While the 2007 predecessor is noticeably front-heavy, the current model’s center of gravity is more to the rear. This greatly increases the feeling of lightness. With the Nikon Z9 attached, the center of gravity of the lens is approximately at the bend of the tripod foot.
That said, I think that Nikon should have made the tripod foot a bit longer. It may not have been necessary in terms of mounting the lens on the tripod, but it would have made the lens much easier to carry. For whatever reason, maybe to save weight, they made the foot a bit smaller than I’m used to.
Now that I mention the tripod foot (and now I hope someone from Nikon reads this), why don’t you finally make it Arca Swiss compatible? If I were to buy the lens, I’d add an Arca Swiss compatible replacement for the tripod foot to my cart right away. What a waste! When I look at some Sigma or Olympus lenses, I see that it can be done. Incidentally, a casual search on the internet shows that I am far from alone in this opinion.
But let’s move on to the other features of the lens. There is a drop-in filter slot in the traditional place, with an upgraded ergonomic lock. I’ve never personally used filters on super teles, but I can imagine cases where a polarizing filter would be helpful. If you photograph, say, surfers with the lens, this slot will probably not be without its uses (as it was for me).
Let’s take a look at the controls. The first lever you’ll encounter with your right hand activates the built-in teleconverter. I’ll come back to this feature later, as this is one of the main reasons you might want to buy the lens. I hope I didn’t give away the point too soon. On the left side, Nikon has placed the A-M (Autofocus-Manual) switch. Just below that is the autofocus range limiter.
I reached for the autofocus range limiter quite often with this lens. After all, if I know that I’m going to photograph an animal that will definitely not come within 6 meters of me, why not tell the lens and camera? The result then is that the camera will ignore the range between 2.5m and 6m, which leads to even faster autofocus than before.
Wondering where all those switches from the previous generation went? Won’t we miss them? I don’t think so. Switching VR mode between Normal and Sport is quickly accessible by pressing the i button, for example.
The other “missing” switch, the one that determines the behaviour of the buttons in front of the lens (L-Fn2), would also be somewhat redundant. There are several reasons. This quartet of buttons can now be mapped to a variety of functions. These wouldn’t be covered by a simple switch.
Moreover, Memory Recall can now be activated without any switching. That’s because a new Fn ring has been added for the Memory Set/Recall function. The L-Fn2 button can then be assigned for something useful like AF-On or AF-area mode.
In front of the lever activating the teleconverter, there is a Memory Set button. This can be used as an alternative to the Fn ring to save the focus position. You can see in the photo below where it’s located. It is quite far away though, so users with shorter fingers will need to loosen their grip on the camera.
Of the controls, I haven’t yet mentioned the focus and control ring. The former does exactly what you expect it to do, which is to manually focus when needed. I used the control ring for exposure corrections in the case of semi-auto mode (M + Auto ISO) or for quick adjustment of ISO value in manual mode. For these purposes, I find the control ring more ergonomic than the traditional button + dial combination. But it can be easy to hit by accident, so be aware that you don’t change your settings unintentionally.
To complete the list of controls, I’ll mention the last button, marked L-Fn. While this can be mapped for a variety of tasks, it is completely out of reach of my fingers. It’s possible that you may find a use for it. If so, let me know in the comments below. My wisdom is, you don’t need to assign every button to something :)
In a word, exceptional. I won’t go into any theorizing, because the hard data will come from Spencer’s lab measurements. Rather, I will share with you my impressions from practical use.
The biggest selling point of this lens in terms of optical quality is superior sharpness and contrast even with a fully open aperture. The second biggest selling point is that using the built-in teleconverter does not detract noticeably from its qualities.
You pay such a fortune for a lens like the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S mainly because it works great wide open, isn’t that right? Thus, the only practical reason to stop down the lens is to get more depth of field.
With the exceptional optical qualities of this lens, the high resolution of the Z7 or Z9 suddenly starts to make sense. Although I generally have a reluctance to crop my photos, I found that the files produced by this glass can be cropped quite extensively. Even photos cropped to a size smaller than APS-C are still full of details and boldly printable. That is, assuming your hand or subject hasn’t gotten shaky.
It is also pleasing that the lens retains its qualities even when focusing on distant subjects. Not that this Goliath was intended as a landscaper’s tool, but it’s nice that you can confidently use it for those purposes if you’d like. When I used this lens to photograph the distant peaks of volcanoes, or the forest-covered slopes of the Andes, the amount of detail was incredible. In this respect, the advance over earlier generations is really great.
Beyond the optical performance, the lens has a certain versatility that many similar lenses lack. Telephoto prime lenses tend to be considered fairly niche tools. But the built-in teleconverter means that this lens acts, to me, more like a zoom than a prime. The ability to instantly switch to a 560mm f/4 lens is intoxicating.
Frankly, that’s the feature that won me over the most. With the built-in teleconverter, the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 has leapfrogged most other supertelephotos by a kangaroo’s tail length. Suddenly you find yourself using it in situations where you wouldn’t have had time before. On top of that, you fundamentally reduce the risk of dropping your teleconverter somewhere, breaking it, or getting dirt or raindrops in your lens during the change.
The lens is also compatible with Nikon’s two external teleconverters, namely the TC-1.4x and TC-2x. The TC-2x makes more practical sense to me, since it can turn the lens into either an 800mm f/5.6 or a 1120mm f/8.
Of course, focusing, sharpness and contrast will suffer somewhat. But not beyond what I would call unacceptable levels. The bigger issue at these focal lengths is an optical element that no one has carefully designed, polished, or coated: the air. Atmospheric distortion is painful at such long focal lengths.
Still, to my eye, the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S with the TC-2x teleconverter is a far cry better than the Nikon F-mount 400mm f/2.8 G with the TC-20E III. The advances in optics combined with the larger lens mount really made a difference.
To summarize, if you buy the TC-2x teleconverter along with this lens, you get:
- 400mm f/2.8
- 560mm f/4 (internal TC)
- 800mm f/5.6 (external TC-2x)
- 1120mm f/8 (internal TC plus external TC-2x)
That’s quite a line of lenses, don’t you think?
How does this lens behave in strong backlight? Is its anti-reflection coating really as powerful as Nikon claims?
Well, when I manage to get it for an expedition to sunnier parts of the world, I’ll be happy to report back. The tropical forests of the Andes are not the African savannah, and sunshine is scarce there. Still, I can’t complain about the contrast from what I saw. Only once, when using the built-in teleconverter, did I see a bit of purple fringing when pointing at a strongly backlit treetop against the sky. I never encountered this in other images.
Focus Speed and Accuracy
After previous, less-than-convincing autofocus experiences with certain adapted F-mount lenses, I was finally thoroughly impressed with the Nikon Z system. This lens refocuses so quickly, smoothly, and silently that I had to verify that autofocus was actually working by focusing at infinity. The “Silky Swift” VCM Autofocus System – a wild marketing name if I’ve ever seen one – does its job very well indeed.
The lens focuses most quickly with subjects that are somewhat far from the camera. Let’s say around ten meters / ten yards. Here, the lens motor has to put in the least effort when refocusing.
On the other hand, with fast-moving objects close to the minimum focusing distance, the lens motor must work harder. This isn’t unique to the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S; what is unique is how well the lens performs even at these distances.
Does this mean you’ll never take an out-of-focus picture again? Absolutely not. No lens is magical, and it still requires careful choice of your AF area mode, plus good reaction time. But the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S has the best focus speed and performance of any lens I’ve used before.
Nikon says that in conjunction with IBIS in the Z9 (Synchro VR), the new vibration reduction used in the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 allows you to shoot with shutter speeds up to 6 stops slower than usual. Of course, your camera holding technique will play a role here – and it’s of no use if your subject is moving quickly, since VR and IBIS only negate camera movement, not subject movement.
Fortunately, many birds have a habit of alternating periods of activity with brief moments of apparent stillness. If you take advantage of these moments, you can get times somewhere around 1/30 sec even when shooting handheld. I still strongly recommend a monopod or tripod under these conditions, but it’s not impossible.
Even at 1/10 second handheld, I occasionally got sharp photos. But at such exposure values, it’s probably best to pack up your gear and leave for a late dinner instead.
The Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S is not a cheap lens. It is not even an expensive lens. For the price of $14,000, this is a could-have-bought-a-car lens.
Until recently, this lens was the most expensive Z-mount lens in Nikon’s lineup. It was dethroned from that position by the Nikon Z 600mm f/4, for which you’ll pay an astronomical $15,500. (For the record, Nikon’s most expensive lens remains the Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR for DSLRs, with a price tag of $16,300.)
So, is the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC a good value? That’s relative. Any lens that earns its keep – or that brings its user so much joy that they forgets how much it cost – can be considered a good value.
Let’s look at it from a different angle. Compared to slower lenses like the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S or Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, the f/2.8 maximum aperture will allow you to shoot in lower light conditions. As it happens, the most interesting things in nature usually occur at the very beginning or, conversely, the end of the day. That may be a strong enough argument for some photographers to buy it.
At the same time, let’s compare the value of the lens to options from other brands. Sony offers a similar lens for $11,998 and Canon for $11,999. When we add the price of 1.4x teleconverters into the equation, which is around $500, Nikon comes out as the most expensive of the trio. And the other two lenses are no doubt on similar optical footing.
So, approximately $1,500 is what you pay for the teleconverter to be built-in rather than separate. Is that too much? You’ll have to judge for yourself. I can see it either way.
With the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S lens, Nikon has taken another big step into the pro segment of the mirrorless market. For a relatively long time, Z users were forced to use adapted supertelephoto lenses from the F-mount era. Although these lenses are optical marvels of their own, they still could not make the most of the advantages of the new mount. With the arrival of the flagship Nikon Z9, it was already clear that if Nikon was to retain its pro customers, it would have to come up with a serious pro telephoto lens.
And that’s exactly what happened. Is the new 400mm f/2.8 lens optically better than its immediate predecessor? To be honest, in the real world, we’d probably look for differences with a microscope. Only with teleconverters will you see any big differences, and that’s more a statement on the F-mount teleconverters than the lens itself.
If you’re doubting whether the built-in teleconverter and f/2.8 aperture are worth the money, then I have good news for you. You can get very similar optical performance and autofocus speed from the much cheaper and lighter Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S. The approximately $10,000 you save can be invested in a trip to a tropical destination to stimulate the willingness of locals to protect their precious wildlife.
Just be warned, don’t ever rent the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8, because its built-in teleconverter is a damn addictive thing.
But I do still have one complaint. There’s a well-known saying that “you learn by making mistakes.” I totally agree. Which is why I’m asking, how many times will Nikon, Canon, Sony, and many others have to repeat the same mistake before they finally get it?
I’m talking about the tripod foot. I really don’t understand why most manufacturers still stubbornly produce those useless tripod feet that almost everyone replaces immediately with some Arca-Swiss compatible ones. The tripod foot in this case could also be a bit longer to make the lens easier to carry. (I understand that it was tempting to knock the weight of the lens down to under three kilograms, though.)
But let me not end this field test with criticism. These are all relatively minor complaints about an otherwise perfect product. If price is not a deterrent – and you can benefit from the advantages that make the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S stand above the current competition – then there is nothing to think about. This is probably the best lens I’ve ever used in the field, and it sets new standards in almost every way.
Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S Field Test
- Optical Performance
- Build Quality
Photography Life Overall Rating