Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor
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July 3, 2013
by William Brawley
The Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor is an upgrade to Nikon's previous medium-to-supertelephoto zoom lens, the 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED VR AF Nikkor. The new version features several improvements and new features such as Nikon's Nano Crystal Coating and the inclusion of a Super ED glass element and second-gen Vibration Reduction. The lens is also designated as a G-series lens meaning the manual aperture ring has been removed, leaving aperture settings to be controlled via the camera. The new version is also heavier than its predecessor.
Like it's predecessor, the 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G is designed for FX, or full-frame, Nikon DSLRs, but will work on Nikon's DX crop sensor cameras as well, providing an equivalent field of view range of 120-600mm. The inclusion of AF-S, or Silent Wave Motor, autofocus allows the new 80-400mm lens to work on all Nikon DX cameras, even those without a built-in AF motor (i.e. D5200, D3200, etc.).
The new lens features Nikon's second-generation Vibration Reduction image stabilization system. Nikon touts the ability to shoot up to 4 stops slower while still capturing sharp photos.
The Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor ships with a hood, front and rear caps, a tripod foot and a soft case for an MSRP of $2,699.95.
We tested this lens on both a full-frame and a sub-frame camera. On the full-frame D800E, the center of the frame was very sharp, with just some minor corner softness, even wide open at 80mm. On the D7000, at 80mm and ƒ/4.5, the entire frame was evenly sharp, and very sharp at that, with practically zero corner softness. On both cameras, 80mm at ƒ/5.6 appears to be the sweet spot, producing the largest area of extreme sharpness.
As is almost always the case with tele zoom lenses, the 80-400mm gets progressively softer as you move towards longer focal lengths. That said, though, it does much better on average in this respect, and is much sharper at 400mm than its predecessor. At 200mm, it compares quite favorably even to much more expensive, shorter-ratio lenses such as the Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 ED VR II. Full-frame images past 200mm at the widest apertures appear to have more corner softness. Stopping down at these longer focal lengths helps with this.
At 80mm, diffraction-limiting is fairly well controlled at the smaller apertures. Diffraction limiting begins to set in at ƒ/11 or so, but he softening at that aperture is pretty minor, and ƒ/16 isn't bad either. It's not until ƒ/22 that the softening becomes unacceptable.
At the longer focal lengths, softening from diffraction first becomes noticeable at about ƒ/16, worsening at ƒ/22, and becoming unacceptable at ƒ/32. (The lens can be stopped down to f/40 at 400mm, but that aperture isn't really useful for much, the results looking more like a 400mm pinhole camera, if there were such a thing.
The Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G does very well controlling chromatic aberration on both full-frame and sub-frame cameras throughout the zoom range. On full-frame cameras between 80-200mm, we saw a corner CA decrease as you stop the aperture down. Once at ƒ/11 and beyond, CA in the corners is minimal and matches closely with the average throughout the frame.
Strangely, at 300-400mm, we saw a sharp change in the amount of chromatic aberration on our full-frame body. While the average across the frame remains low and consistent as you stop down, the corner CA increased from ƒ/5.6 to around ƒ/16 for 300mm and increased even more sharply at 400mm. At 400mm past ƒ/11, we saw corner CA values higher than wide-open at 80mm.
On the sub-frame camera, CA is much less noticeable, particularly in the corners. At 80mm, the corner CA follows the same progression as the average with only about a 1/100th of a percent of the frame height more. At 200mm, once you stop down to ƒ/16 and smaller, the CA at the corners vs. the average match almost completely at around 200ths of a percent of the frame height.
Confirming that the extra chromatic aberration we saw at 300mm and 400m was in the corners of the frame, we saw none of it on the sub-frame body. CA at 300mm on a sub-frame camera is very well controlled in both the corners and across the frame, with a near-constant low value at all apertures. At 400mm, we saw a very similar result, with only slightly higher values compared to 300mm.
Vignetting was very minor with this lens on a full-frame camera, and even further reduced on sub-frame camera, which is to be expected when using a full-frame lens on a crop sensor camera. In fact, on a sub-frame camera, vignetting is practically non-existent with the maximum amount of light loss being only around an eighth of a stop for 400mm at ƒ/5.6. At the other focal lengths, and all apertures light loss is even lower.
On the full-frame camera, the most vignetting we saw was just slightly over a half-stop at 80mm ƒ/4.5. All focal lengths were consistent in their decrease in vignetting as the aperture was stopped down.
Distortion was also very well controlled on the Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G. On the full-frame camera, we saw close to zero distortion at 80mm, both in the corners and averaged across the frame. As you zoom to the longer focal lengths, the average shows a slight increase in barrel distortion, but reaching a maximum value of less than 0.125%. In the corners, we see a bit more pincushion distortion as the focal length increases, but still well controlled at less than 0.5%. On the sub-frame camera, we saw a similar behavior, but with a lower magnitude.
Thanks to the Silent Wave Motor, the Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G lens autofocuses very quickly, taking just over one second to rack the full focus distance from minimum to infinity. In practice, we found that autofocus felt very quick and smooth, and did not hunt for the subject.
Despite the Silent Wave Motor, though, autofocusing is far from silent. You can clearly hear the lens elements moving around while focusing. I wouldn't go so much to call it "rattling," but you can definitely hear a mechanical jostling of the lens elements as they shift around during AF operation.
The Nikon 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G has a minimum focus distance of 5.74 ft., and does not have any macro shooting capabilities.
Build Quality and Handling
The build quality in the new Nikon 80-400mm lens is excellent with the barrel comprised of metal and high-quality plastic, all painted with Nikon's typical black stipple finish. The lens feels solid, wide and beefy in the hands. The lens mount is understandably made of metal and includes a rubber gasket for weather sealing. There is no mention in Nikon literature to indicate whether or not the rest of the lens body or front element are weather-sealed, however.
Housed within the barrel are 20 glass elements in 12 groups with 4 elements being ED glass, and one element being Super ED glass (a new feature compared to its predecessor) for enhanced control of flare and chromatic aberrations. The new version also features Nikon's Nano Crystal Coatings, which should significantly reduce flare over its predecessor as well. The lens itself is quite long and fairly heavy – heavier than the previous version – weighing in at 1560 grams including the tripod foot.
The zoom and focus rings are very nice and rotate very smoothly. The focus ring sits just in front of the tripod foot and is about 1.25 inches wide. The focus ring is covered by a rubberized grip with a large ribbed texture, and has a looser, easier-to-rotate feel to compared to the zoom ring. (Understandable, since you're not moving big glass elements around when focusing.) The focus ring has about 40 degrees of total rotation, and has soft stops, such that it will rotate past the minimum and infinity focus marks.
The zoom ring is nice and thick (about 2 inches wide) and is nicely located to help balance the lens when shooting. When zooming, the lens will extend outward to a maximum of 2.25 inches at 400mm. Even with this extended length, the zoom ring provides an excellent handholding spot that's comfortable with a wider, more texturized rubber grip and still keeps the lens nicely balanced. In terms of zooming action, the ring requires a bit more oomph to rotate compared to the focus ring, but easily turns with two fingers, with a full rotation of about 45 degrees. There is a lock switch at 80mm to prevent the lens from extending inadvertently, however the zoom action is pretty tight and we see no reason why lens creep would be an issue.
The tripod foot that is included with the lens differs from its predecessor in that it's smaller in length and somewhat thinner. Our lens specialist Rob felt that the new smaller tripod foot allowed the lens to flex too much when mounted to a tripod, particularly when fully zoomed out to 400mm.
This new 80-400mm features Nikon's second-generation Vibration Reduction image stabilization technology claimed to provide up to 4-stops of stabilization (compared to 3 in the older version). Unfortunately, we had difficulty obtaining good IS results at 400mm. At 80mm, we saw a marked improvement with VR enabled, about 3.5 stops' worth on a sub-frame camera. At 400mm, though, the data was inconsistent, with widely varying results. Therefore, we're not ready to make an authoritative assessment of the 80-400mm's IS performance, and may revisit this lens in the future.
The nearest competitor to the new Nikon 80-400mm lens would be the old Nikon 80-400mm lens – the 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED VR AF Nikkor. While it doesn't have the fancier optical treatments like Nano Crystal Coating or a Super ED element or the AF-S Silent Wave Motor autofocusing system, it does weight less, have a better tripod foot and costs much less – around $1000 less (Nikon lists the MSRP around $1,850 while the new one costs around $2,700). As noted above, though, it's not as sharp, especially at 400mm.
A much more budget friendly option is the 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR AF-S Nikkor, which has a suggested retail price of about $590. In our tests, this lens surprised us, being quite sharp, even wide open. Although you sacrifice some zooming distance with only 300mm compared to 400mm, you gain 10mm at the wider end, as well as a lot of money back in your wallet.
Now if you say, "But I want 400mm!" and you pass on the 80-400mm lens but still want a Nikon-brand lens, then be prepared to fork over a lot of cold hard cash. The only other Nikon zoom lens that reaches 400mm is the Nikon 200-400mm ƒ/4G ED-IF VR AF-S Nikkor with weighs in at about 7.4 lbs. (almost double the weight of the new 80-400) and a price of $7000. We haven't tested this lens yet, so can't comment on its optical quality. (We'd expect it to be pretty good, though, at that price.)
Some other options would be the Sigma 150-500mm ƒ/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM or the Sigma 50-500mm ƒ/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM, which offer similar long zoom ranges and optical image stabilization technology. We unfortunately haven't tested either of these lenses yet, so again can't comment on their performance.
Optically this lens is excellent, producing very sharp photos on both full-frame and sub-frame cameras even at wide-open apertures throughout the zoom range. Other image quality factors like chromatic aberration, distortion and vignetting were all well behaved and minimal. Autofocus performance was outstanding with fast and accurate AF, although there is noticeable noise while the lenses is focusing due to the shifting of the glass elements. We can't comment on IS performance at 400mm, but at 80mm it was exceptionally good.
Like other high-end Nikon lenses, the build quality of this new 80-400mm is great with a solid feel and weighty heft, although we wish they had simply used a tripod foot with a similar design to the older version given the increased weight of the new version.
Despite some cons, there are many pros to this new lens, and it should be a great lens for the wildlife or travel photographer who needs the flexibility of a wide range of focal lengths with the simplicity of a single lens, while at the same time having the build quality to withstand some punishment from Mother Nature. All in all, a great addition to the Nikkor line.
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor User Reviews
9 out of 10 points and recommended by bradhill (9 reviews)Solid optical quality throughout the entire focal range; very "hand-holdable"Just acceptable build quality, horrendous tripod collar, poorly designed hood
I've just completed my full field test of this lens. Here's the "Executive Summary":reviewed January 27th, 2014 (purchased for $2,500)
The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is a significant and worthwhile upgrade from its predecessor. It's an incredibly versatile lens that will meet most of the needs for many, many nature and wildlife photographers. The build quality doesn't match Nikon's best and most expensive lenses, but for most uses it's simply good enough - and it stood up to a full field season of rugged field use with nary a problem. The autofocus system proved to be accurate and fast enough to capture any action - from birds-in-flight through to running mammals. The Vibration Reduction technology permitted me to effectively hand-hold the lens at manageable "real-world" shutter speeds (1/focal length and often slower) for all focal lengths. Optical quality? While one can find a Nikon lens that's sharper at virtually every focal length, this is a solid performer over its entire focal range and it produces images sharp enough to please most any user. Image sharpness was comparable to the almost legendary 200-400mm f4 VR at all overlapping focal lengths. The size and weight of the lens makes it extremely portable - whether in a backpack, waist-mounted holster system, or in your carry-on luggage on a plane. Taken as a whole, and for almost any nature or wildlife photographer, this is as close to a "must-have" lens as you can get.
The full field test may be found here:
Cheers and enjoy!
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Nikon5 (2 reviews)Sharp at the long end! Can be used quite successfully with a 1.4 tcPrice.
Delighted with lens, good VR (Can hand hold for bird images). Little or no loss of quality with 1.4tc, giving 560mm of sharp pics.or 840 in 35mm equivalent. Highly priced but I'm satisfied. Tried it in low light yesterday with TC and still got good pics, AF a little slower in these conditions) Great for nature and wildlife.reviewed September 16th, 2013 (purchased for $2,498)
9 out of 10 points and recommended by CraigH (10 reviews)Very sharp and contrasty on my D700, D3S and D800. Crystal clear rendition with no color cast.It's a bit of a learning curve maintaining focus on bird in flight.
I own a Nikon 300 f/2.8 VR and a Nikon 500 f/4. I wanted a zoom in this range for a bit lighter weight use because I've gotten older and developed Parkinson's Disease. This is an excellent lens. If I were one of those forum complainers, I'd have probably returned it in 30 days because I was struggling with autofocus. My keeper rate was very low and as one does, I blamed the lens. Fortunately, I decided logically this was me and this lens just took longer to master. I'm glad I decided to ride the learning curve because this lens can be absolutely spectacular when properly understood. You just can't be sloppy on focus here. My 300 and 500 primes, I can sometimes be, but not this zoom. You have to be certain you're locked dead on target and you're fine. With regards to BIF, I suggest the minimum of a good monopod and careful panning technique at a fairly high shutter speed. You have to get lock early or you just never will. You will have a series of blurred birds. Don't trust tracking either. I've not solved that yet, but I will. I promise.reviewed July 5th, 2013 (purchased for $2,700)
If you're patient and take the time to master this lens, it will repay you handsomely by rivaling your very best glass. If you try to push that learning curve with instant gratification, I think you might be an unhappy camper. Just don’t blame the glass. If an older guy with advanced Parkinson’s Disease can master this lens and end up with a good keeper rate rivaling a Nikon 500 f/4-P on Kingfishers in flight, then you certainly can.
One little warning. Do use the lens hood and you'll have very good flare and ghosting control. Do not use a protective filter unless you want a veiling flare and ghosting even with that hood in contra lighting. I got it with a $200 polarizer too. It doesn't seem to like filters much and that's not a problem for me. Just sayin'
9 out of 10 points and recommended by entropius (3 reviews)very sharp, excellent VR, fast accurate AFprice, modest aperture
This is a lens with rather modest specs (f/5.6 aperture), but high-end performance and a price to match.reviewed July 5th, 2013 (purchased for $2,700)
It focuses quickly and accurately, has superb VR, and seems rather sturdy. The manual focus throw is not very long, making precision manual focusing hard. The AF is sufficient to track swallows in flight, for instance.
SLRgear's test result at 400mm seems a little suspect to me; my copy is very sharp at 400/5.6 (on D7100). It is a little softer at 300mm than 400mm, unlike most lenses like it. Below 250mm it is very sharp, although there is some significant bokeh chromatic aberration at 80mm wide open.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by arber (1 reviews)fast, sharplarge
Best Nikon telephoto zoom available, great for birds including in flightreviewed June 5th, 2013 (purchased for $2,400)