Nikon Z users have a lot to like about the 400mm f/4.5, and very little to dislike. It’s sharp, it focuses quickly, and it weighs very little. There are no major compromises with the lens’s image quality, handling, or build quality. Even the price of $3250 is reasonable.
Let me focus on that last point for a moment longer. At $3250, the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 is about 25% of the price of the 400mm f/2.8, while offering about 90% of the image quality. The reason to get the $14,000 lens instead is for the extra 1.3 stops of light in dim conditions, plus the built-in teleconverter. If you can live without those features, you can save the money and go on some amazing wildlife photography trips instead.
Another lens you may be considering as an alternative is the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, which is less expensive at $2700. However, the 400mm f/4.5 is not only sharper but also 2/3 of a stop brighter, allowing you to shoot with a very solid 560mm f/6.3 if you use Nikon’s 1.4x teleconverter. But the 100-400mm has the versatility of wider focal lengths, so it all comes down to your situation. To me, most wildlife photographers will be happier with the 400mm f/4.5, while the 100-400mm makes more sense for generalist photographers who shoot a combination of wildlife, landscapes, sports, and travel photos.
Two very similar alternatives to the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 are the Nikon Z 600mm f/6.3 and the Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6. The biggest difference between these three lenses is their focal length and maximum aperture (and to some extent, their prices). I would choose based on those factors, not based on image quality. To me, 400mm is a great focal length for a lot of wildlife, but something longer may be better if you are photographing smaller or more distant subjects.
Let’s take a look at the list of pros and cons, which I will warn you, is a bit one-sided!
- Excellent image quality, including sharpness, vignetting, and flare performance
- Fast autofocus even in low light
- Very good handling features befitting a high-end telephoto lens
- Great build quality with strong weather sealing and no external moving parts
- Price of $3250 is hardly cheap, but is still a good value, and often goes on sale for $3000
- Performance with the teleconverters, especially the 2x TC, is a bit worse than expected
- Maximum central sharpness is achieved at f/5.6 rather than wide open (though f/4.5 is still very good)
- Tripod collar and lens hood designs could be improved
I have very few complaints about the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S. Only a redesign of the tripod collar would make the lens meaningfully better than it already is. That’s not to say it’s the perfect telephoto lens for everyone – you may be more in need of the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, 600mm f/6.3, or one of the exotic supertelephotos – but it strikes a great balance for wildlife photographers. I consider it one of Nikon’s best general-purpose wildlife lenses, alongside famously impressive glass like the Z 600mm f/6.3 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF.
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Images and text copyright © Libor Vaicenbacher and Spencer Cox, all rights reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the authors.
Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S
- Build Quality and Handling
- Size and Weight
- Sharpness Performance
- Other Image Quality
Photography Life Overall Rating
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