The Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S is a lightweight supertelephoto lens for the full-frame Nikon Z system. It is one of the smallest and lightest 400mm lenses available today, yet the f/4.5 maximum aperture is still large enough to allow for low-light photography. In this hands-on review of the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5, we will explain everything you need to know about this lens, including its build quality, image quality, and value compared to other telephoto lenses for the Nikon Z system.
Even at first glance, it is clear that Nikon designed the Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S with wildlife photographers and sports photographers in mind. It is especially meant for photographers who want to minimize weight – and for photographers who are on a budget. No, the lens’s price of $3250 is not cheap, but it’s still much less expensive than any of Nikon’s exotic supertelephotos. (For comparison, Nikon’s flagship supertelephotos are the Z 400mm f/2.8 and the Z 600mm f/4, which cost $14,000 and $15,500 respectively.)
Something to note about the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S is that it does not have a Phase Fresnel (PF) lens element. Nikon’s PF lens elements have been a staple in their lightweight telephoto lenses for years, starting with the 300mm f/4 PF and 500mm f/5.6 PF lenses for the F-mount system. PF lens technology helps decrease the size and weight of a lens by replacing one or more “traditional” lens elements with a single, thinner Fresnel lens element.
But Phase Fresnel technology is not the only way to get a lightweight lens, and Nikon has proven this with the Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S. Weighing in at 1245 grams (2.74 pounds), the lens is light enough for photographers to carry all day. It weighs less than Nikon’s 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom (1435 grams), for example, while capturing more light thanks to the f/4.5 maximum aperture at 400mm.
The good price and light weight combine to make the Z 400mm f/4.5 a very exciting Nikon Z lens for sports and wildlife photography – right alongside the Z 600mm f/6.3 VR S and the Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S. It’s small, light, and fairly-priced.
Does the lens’s performance live up to all this promise? After testing the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S extensively both in the field and in the lab, here is my detailed review of this impressive supertelephoto lens.
Long telephoto lenses tend to see intense use in the field and need to hold up under professional use. The Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 has a mix of metal and plastic construction, with the barrel mainly being constructed of high-quality plastic. The impression it leaves me is excellent. The materials inspire confidence, nothing wobbles anywhere, and the overall lens feels extremely well-built.
Personally, I prefer the use of high-quality plastics in a telephoto prime like this, where light weight is a priority. Plastics are lighter than metal, and they tend to resist everyday mechanical shocks better. Plastic lenses are less heat-conductive than metal, so they don’t feel as cold. What about their durability and longevity? I wouldn’t worry about the longevity of plastic, considering how long it seems to last in the Great Pacific garbage patch. But metal probably still has the advantage there.
To ensure that the internal parts, and especially the electronics, don’t suffer from the weather, the 400mm f/4.5 has dust and weather seals. Nikon says that it will withstand dripping water, and that mirrors my experience with the lens. It wasn’t a problem at all, even for long, rainy days in the tropics of South America. As with prior Nikon telephoto lenses, the build quality overall is excellent.
The first thing that comes to mind when you pick up the Nikon 400mm f/4.5 is how incredibly light it is. Prior to this, the king of lightweight telephotos has been the Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6E PF – but even that lens has to bow to the lightness of the Z 400mm f/4.5. (And the weight difference isn’t just because this is 400mm instead of 500mm; the 400mm lens has a wider maximum aperture, after all.)
To be specific, the weight of the 400mm f/4.5 S lens is 1245 grams (2.74 pounds). If you mount Nikon’s 1.4x teleconverter on it – making a 560mm f/6.3 – the combined weight is 1465 grams. By comparison, Nikon’s F-mount 500mm f/5.6 PF weighs 1460 grams, not counting the necessary FTZ adapter if you plan to use it on a Nikon Z camera.
The closest alternative in Nikon’s mirrorless lineup is the Nikon Z 600mm f/6.3, which weighs 1470 grams. Of course, it’s a longer lens, but the maximum aperture is also narrower by a full stop. And while you can turn the 400mm f/4.5 into a 560mm f/6.3 with a teleconverter, you can’t go the opposite direction if you start with the 600mm f/6.3! As a wildlife photographer, you simply won’t find anything lighter and more portable than the Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S without facing major compromises.
As for the control layout on the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S, a welcome addition is the implementation of the function ring. I use mine for quick ISO changes in manual mode, combined with the live histogram to see the brightness of my images. It’s been more useful than I expected.
Alongside the function ring are function buttons, which are carried over from previous Nikon telephoto lenses. I use them in conjunction with the Memory Set button in order to store a focusing distance in the lens’s memory, and then recall it quickly. If you’re shooting at a bird feeder, for example – or a branch where the birds keep landing – definitely give this feature a try.
I only have minor issues with the lens’s handling, which I already covered in my article comparing the 400mm f/4.5 against the 400mm f/2.8. Mainly, the tripod collar has some design flaws, including the potential for overtightening, and a non-standard tripod foot. I also don’t like the lens hood’s locking mechanism as much as on the Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S. These complaints don’t overshadow the rest of the lens’s handling, but I’d be remiss not to point them out.
The Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S has 19 lens elements in 13 groups. These elements include one ED (Extra-low Dispersion) element, two Super ED glass elements, and one SR (Short-wavelength Refractive) element. The SR element helps correct chromatic aberration, and it is partly responsible for the lens’s light weight.
Although the lens lacks Nikon’s most powerful (at least according to their marketing) ARNEO coating for reducing flare, it has Nano Crystal Coating and Super Integrated Coating, which do the same job. Frankly, I can never tell the difference between any of these coatings for reducing flare in practice, so I guess I’m just taking Nikon at their word.
Here’s the full list of specifications for the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S for your reference:
- Full Name: Nikon NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S
- Mount Type: Nikon Z Mount
- Focal Length: 400mm prime
- Angle of View (FX): 6° 10′
- Maximum Aperture: f/4.5
- Minimum Aperture: f/32
- Aperture Blades: 9, rounded
- Filter Size: 95mm
- Lens Elements: 19
- Lens Groups: 13
- Special Elements: 1 ED, 2 Super ED, 1 SR
- ARNEO Coating: No
- Nano Crystal Coating: Yes
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Fluorine Coated Front Element: Yes
- Vibration Reduction: Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Control Rings: Focus and Custom
- Function Buttons: Memory Set, Fn-1, and Fn-2 (Fn-2 duplicates four times)
- Focus Motor: Dual STM
- Minimum Focus Distance: 2.5 meters (8.2 feet)
- Maximum Magnification: 0.16× (1:6.25)
- Mount Material: Metal
- Weather/Dust Sealing: Yes
- Dimensions (Length × Diameter): 235 × 104 mm (9.2 × 4.1 inches)
- Weight: 1245 grams (2.74 pounds)
- MSRP: $3250
- Lowest Sale Seen: $2996.95 (check current price at our B&H affiliate link)
The next page of this review covers the optical characteristics of the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S, including focusing performance and detailed sharpness tests in the lab. So, click the menu below to go to “Optical Features”:
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