When Nikon added an 800mm S-line prime lens to their roadmap, I had flashbacks to the F-mount 800mm f/5.6E FL. That lens was Nikon’s crown jewel for years – a $16,300 piece of glass that very few photographers could justify. Would the mirrorless version, the 800mm f/6.3 that I’m reviewing today, be any different?
Oh goodness yes. The two lenses might have similar top-line specifications, sharing the 800mm focal length and boasting a similar maximum aperture. But the mirrorless lens is a completely different beast, costing $9800 less and weighing roughly half as much. Here’s a chart I made around the time the lens was announced to demonstrate its remarkably low price in context:
Notice the trend. Nikon’s pricing tends to be pretty consistent, and a generic 800mm f/6.3 could be expected to cost at least $10,000 based on the size of the entrance pupil (800mm ÷ 6.3 ≈ 127mm). But the Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S is $6500 instead! That’s still not cheap – and it’s certainly more than most photographers would spend on a lens – but it’s very low for an exotic supertelephoto.
How did Nikon manage such a feat? In part, the lens’s Phase Fresnel, or PF, element is to thank. PF lens elements can replace a larger, heavier element with a single piece of glass. Even though the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 S has 22 elements in 14 groups, they’re relatively small and not spaced out too far, allowing the barrel of the lens to be shorter. This certainly lowers the lens’s weight, and it probably lowered Nikon’s costs, too.
Then there’s the question of performance. Often, lenses have a direct tradeoff between weight and optical quality (at least at a given focal length / aperture). Did Nikon prioritize weight and price rather than image quality with the Z 800mm f/6.3? That’s a question I’ll cover in extensive detail on the second page of this review, but to some degree, the answer is yes. The Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S is not quite as optically perfect as some Nikon supertelephotos, even though it’s still very good.
Lastly, I wonder if Nikon is trying to make a statement about the Z system with the cost of this lens. Canon and Sony users will be raising their eyebrows considering the extremely high prices of lenses like the Canon RF 800mm f/5.6 ($17,000) and Sony 600mm f/4 ($13,000). I could say something similar about the Nikon Z9, which launched for about $1000 less than expected. If Nikon can get sports and wildlife photographers to switch to the Z system at this point, it will pay dividends for them down the road.
But enough with speculations, time for specifications. Here’s how the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 stacks up on paper:
Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S Specifications
- Full Name: Nikon NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S
- Mount Type: Nikon Z Mount
- Focal Length: 800mm
- Angle of View (DX): 2°
- Angle of View (FX): 3°10′
- Maximum Aperture: f/6.3
- Minimum Aperture: f/32
- Aperture Blades: 9, rounded
- Filter Size: 46mm, drop-in
- Lens Elements: 22
- Lens Groups: 14
- Special Elements: 3 ED glass, 1 SR glass, 1 PF element
- ARNEO Coating: No
- Nano Crystal Coating: Yes
- Super Integrated Coating: No
- Fluorine Coated Front Element: Yes
- Electronic Diaphragm: Yes
- Vibration Reduction: Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Control Rings: 1 focus, 1 control ring
- Function Button: Yes, 1 memory set button, 1 L-Fn button, and 4 duplicated Fn-2 buttons around the front of the lens.
- Focus Motor: STM
- Minimum Focus Distance: 5.0 m (16.4 ft)
- Maximum Magnification: 0.16× (1:6.25)
- Mount Material: Metal
- Weather/Dust Sealing: Yes
- Dimensions (Length × Diameter): 385 × 140 mm (15.2 × 5.6 inches)
- Weight: 2385 g (5.26 lbs)
- MSRP: $6500
- Lowest Sale Seen: $6500 (check current price)
There’s a lot to like about these specifications, with the surprisingly light weight being one of the most important details. Once again, Nikon has showed that their PF lenses are on another level when it comes to balancing focal length, maximum aperture, and weight. As I see it, the 800mm f/6.3 gets this balance exactly right. That puts it in a small class alongside the Nikon 300mm f/4 PF and Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF (both DSLR lenses), as well as the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5, which, surprisingly, is not a PF lens.
The biggest negative in the specs above is the minimum focusing distance of 5.0 m (16.4 ft). That’s longer than I would like for an 800mm lens, and it means that you can’t focus on especially close subjects with the 800mm f/6.3 S. It works out to a maximum magnification of 1:6.25. If you photograph small subjects like dragonflies or hummingbirds, you might find yourself backing up in order to get them in focus.
That said, it’s actually better than the F-mount 800mm f/5.6E FL, which has a minimum focusing distance of 5.9 m (19.4 ft) and a maximum magnification of 1:6.62. Many of Nikon’s other supertelephotos have a similar issue. If you want to photograph really small animals like bugs or lizards, I’d recommend the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S instead, which has an impressive maximum magnification of 1:2.5 at 400mm.
The Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S is well-built, and that probably goes without saying. Professional sports and wildlife photographers are not easy on their gear, and I’m confident this lens can put up with any reasonable bumps and splashes. I used it in rainy conditions for hours on end without issue, along with temperatures well below freezing.
Part of how Nikon kept the lens so light is by using high-quality plastics instead of metal. This is nothing unusual for a modern supertelephoto lens, and I have no complaints about their design decisions. It keeps the lens light, and that’s one of its major selling points.
In particular, at 2385 g (5.26 lbs), the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S is much lighter than a typical high-end supertelephoto lens. By comparison, the F-mount 800mm f/5.6E FL weighs a whopping 4590 grams / 10.1 pounds. Even the other Nikon Z supertelephotos are generally heavier, like the Z 600mm f/4 TC at 3260 grams / 7.2 pounds.
That makes the 800mm f/6.3 VR S one of the only handholdable 800mm full-frame lenses on the market today, and arguably the only one that’s of such a high caliber. (Canon has an 800mm f/11 that is good at what it does, but since it’s an f/11 lens, it is hardly a high-end professional alternative.)
Frankly, the biggest problem handholding this lens isn’t the weight. It’s the fact that at 800mm, even photographers will steady hands will find the viewfinder jumping around wildly. You’re better off using this lens with a tripod or monopod most of the time, if only to make it easier to compose and track your subject.
Lastly, Nikon enthusiasts will be excited to see the return of the gold ring – something that once was found on a lot of high-end F-mount lenses, and now only exists on a few elite Nikon Z telephotos. (Photography enthusiasts probably won’t care very much.)
Now let’s cover the handling features of the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S.
The Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S handles very well, and it should be familiar to any long-time users of Nikon’s exotic supertelephotos. The lens has two control rings (one for focus, one custom), a memory recall button, and two function buttons (one of which is duplicated four times around the front of the lens). Interestingly, there is no EL display on this lens, despite being found on some less expensive Nikon Z lenses like the f/2.8 S zoom trio.
To use the memory recall option, make sure that your camera has the latest firmware. You can then assign L-Fn1 or L-Fn2 to “Recall Focus Position,” which starts once you press Memory Set. Even if you turn off the camera, it will continue to remember the focus position you’ve saved.
Handling an 800mm lens in general is always a challenge. You’d be best served with a tripod and a high-quality gimbal tripod head. Even though the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S can be handheld more easily than most supertelephotos, it’s still hard to compose and track moving subjects without a tripod or monopod.
The lens hood on the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S is large and comes with its own protective cloth in place of a lens cap. It’s a bit odd, but not really a problem.
As for the switches on the side of the lens, it’s nothing too exciting. There’s one A-M switch for enabling and disabling autofocus. Then there’s a focus limiter switch with two options: Full and ∞-10m. Since the close focusing distance of this lens is 5 meters (16.4 feet), the “Full” option on the focus limiter is only necessary if you’re near the lens’s close-focus limit.
I didn’t notice much autofocus hunting behavior on the lens even with “Full” enabled. That said, in low light conditions, it can help somewhat to put the switch to “∞-10m” instead.
One of my few complaints about the handling of the 800mm f/6.3 VR S is the tripod foot, which is a common complaint our writers often have at Photography Life. Nikon really needs to switch over to making Arca-Swiss compatible tripod feet. But aside from that, there isn’t much to dislike about the lens’s handling.
The last feature I’ll mention here is stabilization. Even though most of Nikon’s mirrorless cameras have in-body image stabilization, it’s still nice to see the addition of VR to the lens itself. According to Nikon, this allows the lens to be used with up to 5 stops of stabilization, or 5.5 stops when combined with the Nikon Z9.
In practice, I wouldn’t recommend anything close to this (which works out to about 1/25 second) if you’re shooting handheld. But I didn’t have any issues shooting from a tripod, even on a loose gimbal head, at relatively slow shutter speeds like 1/100 second.
Spencer: Looks like I have egg on my face. Until Nikon officially announced the price, I was confidently predicting that this lens would be at least $10,000.
Nasim: But that’s because you had a different type of lens in mind. Nikon did not design this lens to be a spiritual successor to the F-mount 800mm f/5.6. They designed it to minimize the weight and price.
Spencer: We’ll see if that decision comes with any optical compromises. So far, there haven’t been very many handling compromises. I would have liked a better minimum focusing distance, and the tripod foot has the usual issues, but those are my only complaints so far.
Nasim: I agree, but it won’t mean anything if the optics aren’t up to a modern and professional standard. I’ll reserve judgment until I see how it performs in terms of image quality.
The next page of this review covers the optical characteristics of the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S, including focusing performance and sharpness tests in the lab. So, click the menu below to go to “Optical Features”:
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