Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR

Introduction

Post Date: Introduction and Part I: January 22, 2014
Post Date: Part IIA: January 24, 2014
Post Date: Part IIB: January 27, 2014
Post Date: Part III: January 23, 2014
Post Date: Part IV (Final Conclusion): January 27, 2014

Update #1: Sample image demonstrating AF performance of AF-S 80-400mm with D800e added (section I-7)

The updated version of this almost venerable lens has been long anticipated by many - and most would argue it was long overdue (the original version of the 80-400mm VR lens went over a decade without an update - this during a time when technology was making leaps and bounds). I guess the same thing can be said about this review - it's taken much longer than expected!

Why the excitement over the release of the AF-S version of the 80-400mm VR? Combine a great and highly useful focal range with updated VR and AF systems and you have a highly appealing package for a lot of different type of photographers, including wildlife shooters. And, the release of the optically excellent 70-200mm f4 VR has many believing (or at least hoping) that the new 80-400mm will be much, much optically better than its predecessor. Does the lens deliver on its promise? Read on...

Why the LONG delay in the production of this review? The primary reason for the delay in my publication of this review is that I was fully aware of the high potential of this lens and that many, many nature photographers would be (or will be) considering purchasing it. So, I really wanted to get this review as "right" as I could. And, I wanted to test the lens over a diverse set of conditions and shooting situations. I was a bit concerned about the build quality of the lens, so I wanted to put it through a "no-holds-barred" field season and see if it would hold up to the rigors of real-world shooting, including getting it wet, freezing it (quite literally this winter!), and generally banging it around the way we all end up doing. The relatively wide focal range of the zoom (80-400mm or 5x) means there are a LOT of lenses to compare this lens to - which definitely added to the time needed to fully evaluate this lens. And - finally - I wanted to shoot, and shoot, and shoot with this lens before I produced this final review.

I'm splitting the main body of this review into 3 parts:

I. In My Hands and Practical Concerns;

II. Optical Performance Under Controlled Field Shooting; and...

III. Optical Performance - When "Just Shooting".

As with all my reviews, you'll see examples of shots wherever they'll actually add to the value of what I'm saying.

A few words about my field testing protocols:

I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for ME (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I'm not paid to test equipment, nor do I receive my gear for free. I test them under field conditions ONLY (no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While I do some of my testing very methodically, much of it is pure "field shooting". I do NOT shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of wildlife (or "proxies", such as my Portuguese Water Dogs) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get the results I need to sell images! While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products is real only in a statistical sense (and has no real correlate in producing a quality image, which is NOT a pure science). In a related manner, field testing of lenses is becoming increasingly complicated by software advances (often in our raw processors) where automatic lens flaw corrections (such as minor chromatic aberration) are rapidly becoming a close to irrelevant. At the end of the day what really matters to me is the quality of the final output (the image), and if some of that quality comes from software somewhere in the middle of the capture-to-output workflow...who cares?

So, when it comes to testing lenses, some of my tests are performed while hand-holding lenses, while others (things like assessment of the effect of stopping the host lens down) are done mounted on a tripod. What I want to discover from my tests are things like: "Is the AF fast enough to hold focus on a grizzly charging directly at me?" or "How does edge-to-edge sharpness of this lens when shot on a D600 at 100 mm compare to that of my 24-120mm f4 VR at 100mm?" (so if I'm carrying both I know which one to pull out of my bag), et cetera. I make no claim for the generalizability of my results - they simply tell me how MY COPY of the lens works for ME in the field. All my tests on this lens were performed using FX bodies (Nikon D600, Nikon D800 and D800e, Nikon D4). I would guess that performance (especially edge-to-edge sharpness) would be as good or better on DX bodies.

It remains up to the reader to decide if my experiences and/or shooting style is similar enough to their's to be able to project that their results with the lens will be similar to mine.

IMPORTANT NOTE: All images included in, or linked to, in this review are covered by copyright. They may be downloaded for your personal use and perusal, but they may not be re-used or re-produced or used in any commercial way without my written permission (contact me if you wish to obtain the rights to use the images).

The Field Test: Nikon's AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-f5.6 VR

First the Executive Summary - many can quit reading at that point! For those that labour on, you'll get a whole lot more information. Note that this review is not intended as a "spec-spew" - detailed specifications for the lens can be found in many places on the web, including here on dpreview's website.

The Executive Summary:

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.

I. In My Hands and Practical Concerns

1. Build Quality: Those who own some of Nikon's "best-of-the-best" lenses, such as any of their super-telephotos or top notch FX zooms (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII) will likely be disappointed in the look and feel and general build quality/feel of this lens in their hands. Simply put, if feels more "plasticky" and when the zoom is extended it seems almost "wobbly" and fragile (extend the zoom and pull lightly laterally on the end of the lens and you'll feel some non-reassuring movement or "play" in it). To be candid, I was disappointed when I unpacked this lens - it just somehow "felt" cheap. And a few other things contributed to some early disappointment in the build quality of the lens, specifically:

• Lens Hood Design and Quality: In my opinion, the lens hood of the 80-400 is poorly designed in at least a couple of ways. First, when reversed in the non-extended "carrying in a pack" position, the hood completely covers the zoom ring. Which means that if you need to whip the lens out for a quick shot (and without taking the time to take the hood off and put it in the extended position) you can't access the zoom ring. You CAN zoom the lens to longer focal lengths by pulling the lens away from the camera (or shorten the focal length by pushing the lens toward the camera), but this method of zooming is quite imprecise (and more than a bit "jerky" and you fight some "stickiness"). Second, the bayonet style method of attaching the hood isn't very secure - it's comparatively easy (read that to mean "too easy") to knock the hood off with a pretty minor bump.

• Tripod Collar: There's no diplomatic way to say this: the tripod collar is awful (it sucks, is next-to-useless, completely crappy, whatever and etc.). The problem - extreme flex when mounted on a tripod. How much flex? Well, put even mild pressure on the camera-lens system when on a tripod and you can move the distal end of the lens at least 2.5 cm (1 inch) side-to-side (or up-and-down). How big a problem is this and are there any viable workarounds? Well...I mostly hand-hold this lens (about 95% of the time) - and the lens collar comes off real easy - so for me it's not a deal breaker. If you are likely to put this lens on a tripod on a frequent basis you are advised to seek out a more rigid (less flexible) 3rd party tripod collar (like the very good ones from Really Right Stuff or Kirk). But this means you'll be adding about $150 or so to the price of the lens.

So where does this leave me with build quality (and, to a degree, design) of the lens? Well...I used this lens in really tough conditions for close to a year - I got it wet, I froze it, I banged it around (like we all do from time-to-time)...and it just kept working (with no internal condensation or dust, no slow down in AF performance, etc.). And, because I choose to hand-hold this lens the vast majority of the time, the ultra-flexy tripod collar really isn't a big issue for me. The lens hood issue? I am still very dissatisfied with that and as soon as I have a few minutes on my hands I will look for a quality 3rd party replacement lens hood. But, at the end of the day, I think the build quality is good enough (they're tools, not jewels - right?).

2. Lens Appearance/Aesthetics: In many ways the appearance and "aesthetics" of the lens is fairly highly correlated with build quality, but I'm separating it out because it has little to do with lens performance and functionality. Some (I hope!) will think inclusion of lens "appearance" in a review is ridiculous (and I'd be hard pressed to disagree with them). I'd totally ignore this characteristic if all users cared only about lens performance - but the reality is a LOT of camera gear is sold on "cool factor". Long story short - (and in my opinion) this lens isn't too aesthetically pleasing. In fact, its "stubbiness" (when retracted to 80mm) and long "goose-neck" appearance (when extended to 400mm) might even prompt some to call it butt-ugly. At best, the lens won't draw many "oohs" or "ahhhs" when you walk into a group of photographers lined up side-by-side along a road with 500mm and 600mm lens on their tripods. Anyway...if things like drawing "oohs" or "ahhhs" or "status-through-having-cool-looking-gear-in-your-hands" are important to you then I suggest that this probably isn't the lens for you. Those looking for a versatile lens that performs extremely well are encouraged to read on.

3. Focal Length Range: There's little to say here other than 5x focal range of the 80-400mm covers an awful lot of the situations that a nature or wildlife photographer encounters - from close-ups with wildlife through to enviroscapes and animalscapes (for a discussion of the image types I call animalscapes and enviroscapes - and the subtle distinctions between them - just go here) and, of course, many landscape shots. Put the 80-400mm on a DX body and the effective focal length (or, if you'd prefer - field of view) matches that of a 120-600mm zoom on a FX body. The highly useful focal range of the 80-400 means you can often take only one or two lenses with you on day trips (or day hikes) and still be ready for almost any shooting situation (I often carry just the 80-400 and the 24-120mm f4 VR on day hikes or when snowshoeing). The fact that both of these lenses have a 77mm filter thread further lightens my load (simply because I need carry only one circular polarizer, or one ND filter).

4. Size and Weight - Practical Considerations: The AF-S 80-400mm VR is surprisingly compact - with hood reversed it's actually a little shorter than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and it weighs only about 80 grams (just under 3 oz) more than the 70-200 (both weighed with tripod foot removed). This compact size and weight has a lot of positive consequences - it's easy to travel with, very easy to handle (especially compared to the super-telephotos, including the 200-400 f4 VR), very easy (for many) to hand-hold, and - very importantly (at least to me) - many key accessories designed for full size 70-200's work with the 80-400. Some examples:

• Lens Cases: Many 3rd party lens cases (e.g., the LowePro Lens Exchange Case 200 AW) - designed for 70-200's work with the AF-S 80-400. Nice.

• Camera Holsters: There are times when I find that having a camera and lens in a quality case on my hip/waist is almost invaluable (e.g., when shooting out of a Zodiac inflatable boat). My favorite holster system is from Think Tank Camera - and their Digital Holster 50 V2.0 is large enough to hold the 80-400 on a pro body. Convenient and - if you already own one of these holsters - a nice way to save a few bucks!

• Rain Covers: I shoot a lot in a place called the Great Bear Rainforest and, being a rainforest with lots of rain, having a quality rain cover is absolutely essential. Think Tank's Hydrophobia 70-200 fits the AF-S 80-400 mounted on a pro body very well (and, to date, it is definitely the best fit of any of the high-end rain covers).

5. 77mm Filter Thread - Little Thing, Big Real World Consequences: Some might consider this a trivial thing, but I was absolutely delighted when I first saw the specs of the AF-S 80-400mm and noticed that its filter thread was 77mm. Same size as the following lenses I already own: the 70-200mm f2.8 VR (I and II), the 16-35mm f4 VR, the 24-70mm f2.8, and the 24-120mm f4 VR. So anyone who has ANY of those lenses and is considering purchasing the 80-400 doesn't have to add in the expense of adding a new set of filters. Or, if they're traveling or just going hiking and want to carry the 80-400 and any of the lenses above, they need carry only one circular polarizer or one ND filter, et cetera.

6. VR (Vibration Reduction) Performance: This is one feature on the "old" version that definitely needed updating - VR technology has definitely leaped forward in the dozen or so years since Nikon introduced the original version of this lens. The AF-S 80-400mm VR employs "second generation" VR technology, and Nikon claims this provides 4 stops of "blur reduction". I have no means of rigorously testing the accuracy of this claim, but after shooting thousands of images with the 80-400 I can say this - the VR is markedly improved over that in the original version of the lens. And, it allowed me to hand-hold the lens (paired with both the 16 MP D4 and the 24 MP D600) and capture an extremely high percentage of sharp shots at all focal lengths using Auto ISO set to Auto Shutter Speed, meaning that I was shooting at a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens. So, at 200mm I was shooting at 1/200s, at 400mm I was shooting at 1/400s, et cetera. Note also that I often shot hand-held at shutter speeds even one stop slower than this (e.g., shot at 400mm at 1/200s) and got sharp shots the majority of the time (about 70% of the time). In other words, for me the VR did the job more than adequately and definitely increased the versatility and ease-of-use of this lens. Note that almost all the images in Part III of this review were captured hand-held - check them out (shutter speeds are included in the annotation of each image).

IMPORTANT NOTE/CAVEAT: The shutter speed at which photographers can hand-hold a lens at (and get sharp results) varies dramatically between photographers. Your experiences and results when hand-holding this lens may differ from mine - and thus your assessment of the VR performance of this lens may also differ from mine.

7. Autofocus (AF) Performance: This was a key upgrade on the new version of this lens - the old lens predated the era when almost every Nikon AF lens utilized their "Silent Wave Motor" (SWM) and was snail-slow (or slower) in focusing. Could you shoot birds-in-flight with the old version? Sure, but they more often than not they were blurry messes! Can you successfully shoot action - birds-flight, running mammals, whatever - with the new version? Absolutely - this lens focuses lightning fast and focuses accurately. Time for some example images (all key technical notes are included on the images):

• Immature Gull in Flight (D4): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.67 MB)

• Portuguese Snow Dog (D800e): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.7 MB)

• Time & Space - Sabine's Gull (D600): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)

• Jose Running (D600): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

• Water. Dog. (D600): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

While I have no objective way of measuring and comparing the speed of autofocus of two or more lenses, subjectively the AF speed of the AF-S 80-400mm VR feels at least as fast as the 200-400mm f4 VR, if not faster (and the actual results I have obtained shooting with this lens are consistent with this statement). Overall I have found the AF system of this lens simply superb.

II. Optical Performance Under Controlled Field Shooting

Given the full focal range of this lens and the number of Nikon lenses against which this lens could be compared, this section could get really long really fast. Add in the possible need to make comparisons over a number of different distances to the subject (I'm still cursing Thom Hogan for his comments about the performance of the 200-400 at long distances) and the number of comparisons can be mind boggling. This section will begin with several general findings before I dive into the nitty gritty (and even there I'll omit a lot of mind-numbing factoids and test images - how many images of static stumps do you really want to look at?).

A. General Findings:

1. Overall Optical Performance: Very good to excellent over the entire 80-400mm focal range. At almost every focal length (with the possible exception of the 201mm to 299mm range) you can find a sharper lens somewhere in Nikon's arsenal. For instance, at 80mm I could list off about 4 lenses that are sharper - such as any of the "pro" lenses in the 70-200 "family" (the f2.8 VRI and VRII and the f4). Similarly, at 105mm the 105mm f2.8 VR Micro is sharper. And, at 200mm there's a raft of sharper options (those 70-200's, the 200mm f2 VR, and the 200mm f4 Micro). But the key point is that these other lenses simply aren't much sharper. For most uses (and most users) this lens is simply sharp enough (especially if the user is good at sharpening images during post-processing). For those who are deciding between this lens and the much larger and more expensive 200-400mm f4 VR (and based on email I've received there's a lot of folks in this category)...well...with exhaustive testing I found the two lenses almost identical in sharpness when shooting under real-world field conditions (on all overlapping focal lengths - and at all distances tested). So if you can get by with a maximum aperture of f5.6 (and with today's cameras that perform superbly at high ISO's many photographers CAN get by at f5.6) there's really no argument from an image sharpness perspective to spend the extra money for the 200-400.

Where is the weakest (or weaker) part of the focal range? Don't ask me - I couldn't find a truly "weak" focal length on this lens. While I'm guessing this next statement is almost self-evident, the new AF-S 80-400 is WAY sharper than its dated ancestor.

2. Edge-to-Edge Sharpness: Surprisingly good. How good? This is a characteristic that varies fairly significantly between cameras of different resolution - it's definitely sharp enough edge-to-edge for the 16 MP D4 (at virtually all focal lengths). And for the 24 MP D600/610. How about for the 36 MP D800/D800e? Well, if you're a pixel peeper like I am - and you're shooting distant landscapes at 400mm - then you would notice slightly better edge sharpness with the 400mm f2.8 VR. But in a blind test you'd likely be unable to distinguish edge sharpness between the 80-400 and the 200-400. One sample distant scene shot (full-frame, hand-held with the D600) to illustrate my point:

• Blue Kootenay Sunrise: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.7 MB)

3. Chromatic Aberration: Incredibly well controlled over the entire focal range. I examined thousands of raw images (with software-enabled correction of CA turned off) and just couldn't find any instances where it was noticeable (even on off-centre fine edges against bright, white backgrounds).

4. Contrast? The new AF-S version of this lens has added good old "N" (Nikon's designator for Nano Crystal Coat to reduce contrast-robbing internal lens element reflections) - and it seems to work. Contrast is enhanced over the previous iteration of this lens. Poor contrast in a lens shows up the most under situations of strong back-lighting or, to a lesser extent, side-lighting. Under these situations the 80-400 performed just fine. One example shot (with strong side-lighting) to illustrate what I mean:

• Jose Sidelit: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

5. Focus Breathing? Yep - this lens definitely exhibits focus breathing. What is "focus breathing"? This occurs when the focal length of the lens functionally shortens when focused at close distances. I noticed this almost right away when comparing optical performance of the 80-400 (@ 400m) against the 200-400mm f4 VR and the 400mm f2.8 VR at a distance of about 4.9m (or 16'). At this distance the maximum focal length of the 80-400 shortened by about 25% (down to about 300mm). Some will consider this a "problem" or flaw. It actually doesn't bother me much (I view it as one of those "internet things that people get unduly worked up about") and after years of thought I came up with an innovative solution to this problem - I move closer to the subject. But if someone is considering buying this lens they should be aware of this "issue".

6. Bokeh/Quality of Out-of-Focus Zones: The "quality" of the out-of-focus zones in an image is a subjective characteristic, but good bokeh is often described as smooth and buttery (and is also associated with a smooth transition from the fully in-focus zones to the completely out-of-focus zones). Good bokeh is correlated with the roundness of the actual diaphragm which, in turn, is correlated with the number of diaphragm blades (with more blades you get a rounder diaphragm). The AF-S 80-400 has 9 diaphragm blades - the same as Nikon's best super-telephotos.

How would I describe the bokeh on the 80-400? Smooth. And well...almost buttery! And much better than I expected. Not 300mm f2.8 VR or 400mm f2.8 VR good (and those lenses have incredible bokeh), but pretty much as good as I've seen on the 200-400mm f4 VR (which has quite good bokeh). Here's a sample shot to get a feel for what I mean (and it's not a bad one to use to examine image sharpness at 400mm, and note the smoothness in transition in sharpness from the squirrel's nose to its tail to the distant background):

• Red On Green: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)

7. The Need to Stop Down to Get Sharp Shots? When shooting wildlife I often like to separate (or isolate) my subjects from the background. Large apertures help make this possible. I also like sharp shots. And I was really concerned that if I couldn't get sharp shots on this "slow-ish" lens when shooting wide open (or darned close to it), then my ability to separate subjects from the background in a field setting would be severely impaired (which I think of as the Rob Ford effect). Well, I'm happy to report that the 80-400 is quite sharp when shot wide open and approaches maximum sharpness when stopped down by only 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop. Which means it IS possible to isolate subjects in a field setting with the AF-S 80-400 VR. This image illustrates my point well:

• View from the REAL Grassy Knoll: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

8. Performance with Teleconverters: Honest admission - I love the idea of teleconverters. But in practice I use them very little when doing any serious shooting (i.e., under 1% of the time). And when I do, I tend to use them paired up with a select few prime lenses - most commonly a 400mm f2.8 VR. And about the only time I ever put a teleconverter on a zoom lens is during lens testing.

That all being said, the performance of the AF-S 80-400mm when paired with the TC-14EII (1.4x) teleconverter surprised me (in a positive way). I tested this combination at various distances and the results were always the same - poor performance (very soft images) when shot wide open (i.e., at f8 when the TC is on), but stop down by one full stop and the images were surprisingly sharp. Stopping down more than one stop didn't really add much more sharpness (so stopping down beyond f11 will be driven more by DoF concerns than sharpness concerns). Here's a sequence of shots to show what I mean:

• Chipmunk with 1.4x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

• Chipmunk with 1.4x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

• Chipmunk with 1.4x TC @ f13: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

• Chipmunk with 1.4x TC @ f16: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

And here's two more shots illustrating the lack of need to stop down more than 1 stop (from wide open) based on sharpness concerns:

• Red Squirrel with 1.4x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.1 MB)

• Red Squirrel with 1.4x TC @ f14: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

When thinking about the overall usability of this combination, keep in mind that the starting aperture is f11, and that we're talking about a focal length of 550mm (on an FX body), which translates to an Effective Focal Length (on a DX body) of 825mm. So think tripod. Which means you should also be thinking "buy replacement tripod collar". Things to consider...

What about the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter? I tried testing it, but quickly gave up. Even on the D4 (the camera I tried it on) you need a maximum aperture of f8 or larger for the autofocus to function effectively (and f5.6 is needed on the majority of Nikon cameras). I occasionally got the AF system to partially work (using the centermost AF bracket only), but for all intents and purposes you have no AF system when you combine the AF-S 80-400mm with the TC-20EIII. Combine that with a starting aperture of f11 that needs to be stopped down to f16 to get any form of sharpness and you have, in my opinion, a combination of gear with no useful purpose. After saying this I fully expect someone to email me telling me I'm crazy and then claiming - with no photographic proof - that they regularly stack TWO TC-20EIII's together on a D800 body and use them with the AF-S 80-400mm VR (total EFL of 2400mm) and almost always get tack sharp results (when hand-held and shot wide open at f22). Sigh...

What about the TC-17EII (1.7x) teleconverter? Sorry...have owned two and really disliked them and no longer own one (so I didn't test it). I would be shocked if the AF-S 80-400 plus TC-17EII proved to have much in the way of real-world usability in the field.

B. Optical Performance at Various Distances, Focal Lengths, and In Comparison to a Variety of Nikkor Lenses

Given the wide focal range of the AF-S 80-400mm VR there is a large potential pool of lenses to compare this lens to. Add in the need (real or perceived) to make these comparisons at a variety of different distances (and, of course, at different apertures and with different cameras), and you're left with a dizzying array of potential comparisons. So I decided to cut down the comparisons to what made the most sense to me (based on a combination of my own experience and the tremendous amount of email feedback this website generates).

Here are the Nikkor lenses I compared the AF-S 80-400mm against:

• 400mm f2.8 VR
• 200-400mm f4 VRI
• 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (both with and without the TC-20EIII - 2x - teleconverter)
• 70-200mm f4 VR (both with and without the TC-20EIII - 2x - teleconverter)
• 70-300mm f4.5-f5.6 VR

Note that I did not test the 70-300mm at all distances. My technical reason for this is as follows: I forgot I owned this lens until about half way through the testing (and given the consistency of what I was finding over the various distances I was not about to start over).

And here are the distances I made the comparisons at. Because of the consistency of the results across all distances, this multi-distance testing became very repetitive and monotonous and if I listed all the results it would be near impossible to see the forest for the trees. So this section will largely present only the clear cut trends and "take home lessons" - which are summarized below the listing of distances. For those interested in more detail I will include links to the blog entries where I provided additional (but not exhaustive) detail in methodology and results.

• 4.9m (16'): This is about the distance I often photograph small mammals and birds (think squirrels, jays and the like) at with a 400mm lens. And, this is the distance at which I first noticed significant focus breathing on the AF-S 80-400mm lens. This focus breathing and associated shift in subject size/magnification in the frame DID confound the comparisons somewhat, but it was still possible to get a "handle" on how the lens performed at this distance. Here are the blog entries where the results at 4.9m are discussed in more detail:

Up Close and Personal - Part 1 (13 May 2013)
Up Close and Personal - Part 2 (15 May 2013)

• 38m (125'): This is the type of distance many wildlife photographers would be photographing some larger subjects at, such as deer, elk, bears, wolves, etc. - so it has "relevance" in that regard. Many types of sports shooting (and a lot of casual shooting) is done this type of distance. Blog entry for more detailed results here:

Moving Back - Part 1 (23 May 2013)

• 80m (262'): This distance is the sort of distance a wildlife photographer might use to shoot an "animalscape" or "enviroscape" shot where the subject is shown within its normal environment and/or (and hopefully) a beautiful scene. It's also the type of distance a parent might shoot his/her child playing soccer, hockey, football (or whatever!). This is the distance where the 70-300mm VR was added to the mix of lenses compared. Blog entry for more detailed results here:

Moving Back - Part 2 (19 June 2013)

• 1000m (3280'): Now we're beginning to talk "distant scene" or an animalscape where the subject is only a very small part of a much bigger overall scene. Blog entry for more detailed results here:

Moving Back - Part 3 (16 July 2013)

Summary of the Results and Take Home Lessons:

After all this testing and scrutinizing literally thousands of images here's a short summary of what I came away with:

1. Little relationship between subject distance and lens ranking/quality: The results I obtained at the various distances were very consistent and there was really no significant fall-off in image sharpness of a particular lens at specific distances. So, for instance - the increase in sharpness of the 400mm f2.8 VR over the 200-400mm VR or the 80-400mm VR at 4.9m mirrored that seen at 80m or 1000m.

2. Shooting at 400mm (any distance): Those who forked out the big bucks for (and who pay the price of struggling with the weight of) the 400mm f2.8 VR can sleep easily - it was the hands-down best option at EVERY distance. Up close the sharpness is striking and the bokeh simply unmatched. At long distances its ability to resolve fine detail is almost stunning. I personally consider this lens as one of the best lenses Nikon has EVER made (and, to be fair, after shooting with a lot of Canon guys, I think the same thing can be said about the Canon version - and it's several pounds lighter).

How do the other options I tested rank? If you compare image sharpness after stopping down 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop from wide open (on all lenses) then the AF-S 80-400mm and the AF-S 200-400mm were in a dead heat for 2nd place. Keep in mind what the need to stop down a little for maximum sharpness really means. At 400mm and at f5.6 it means the 200-400mm VR is visibly sharper than the 80-400mm VR, but by f6.3 to f7.1 this sharpness difference disappears. And it may mean to you that using the 80-400mm lens in its sharpest range hampers or penalizes you because of (1) a need for more light or (2) in your ability to separate a subject from the background. How significant a penalty this really is will vary with the user (how/what they shoot, what camera they use, etc.).

What about the two 70-200's (the f2.8 VRII and the f4 VR) plus 2x TC's. Well...they definitely place behind the two bigger zooms. And - very interestingly to me - the newer, smaller, lighter, and cheaper 70-200mm f4 VR seems to take better to teleconverters than the older f2.8 VRII - the f4 version definitely produced better results, especially when shot wide open with the TC on (the results when you shoot the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII wide open - at f5.6 - are really, really soft).

What kind of differences am I talking about - how different are the images in sharpness? Here are two composite graphics that will give you a feel for the differences. Note that they are huge crops showing only a central region of each image (so that you can easily compare the images at 1:1 without endless scrolling):

• 5 Ways to 400mm (at 80 meters): Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

• 5 Ways to 400mm (at 1 kilometer): Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

3. From 301 to 399mm (any distance): Just remove the 400mm f2.8 VR from the comparison and the same thing can be said as above: after stopping down 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop from wide open (on all lenses) then the lens rank as follows in image sharpness: 80-400mm and 200-400mm tied for first, 70-200mm f4 VR with 2x TC in 2nd, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC last. Absolute differences in sharpness? Similar to differences seen in graphics above.

4. From 201 mm to 300mm (any distance): Same thing, but with a wrinkle added by the 70-300 - a tie for first with the 80-400mm and the 200-400mm, followed by the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR (no TC of course), THEN the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC, and with the 70-200mm f2.8 plus 2x TC placing last again. Please note that subsequently I did the same test again with the 1.4x TC on both 70-200's and the overall results were unchanged (and there really was very little difference in the sharpness when using the 1.4x vs. the 2x TC).

How about in comparison to the 300mm f2.8 VR (either version)? I didn't have a 300mm f2.8 VR available at the time of testing, but I have copious experience with this lens and am comfortable in saying that I am very certain (i.e., 99% certain) that it would slightly out-perform all the others in image sharpness at any distance. Would the difference be large? No, but large enough to be noticeable. And, of course, you have those wonderful large apertures to work with as well.

5. From 80mm to 200mm: Once you strip the TC's off the 70-200's things change in a major way. And, the total difference in sharpness from the best to the worst in this focal range has fallen dramatically - major, major pixel-peeping and hair-splitting is needed to separate out image quality (in terms of sharpness) of these lenses in the 80-200mm focal range. From best to worst, here's what I found: 70-200mm f4 VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Note that if you do any resolution reduction on the images at all, or just give them a quick glance at full resolution, you could easily argue for a 4-way tie (as always, after stopping down 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop from wide open).

Note that within this focal range Nikon has some very sharp prime lenses, including the 105mm f2.8 VR Micro, the 200mm f4 Micro, and the amazing 200mm f2 VR. As with the 300mm f2.8 VR, I have used these lenses extensively and have no qualms in saying that they would beat all of these zoom lenses in absolute sharpness. But the absolute difference in sharpness really wouldn't be what you'd call "huge".

A summary of the summary? What are the best lenses to pull out in each focal range? Sure - here you go! If shooting at 400mm your best option is the 400mm f2.8 VR prime. Don't have one? Then you'll do well with either the 80-400mm or the 200-400mm. Shooting between 200 and 399mm? Grab either the 80-400mm or the 200-400 first (before putting a TC on a shorter zoom). Below 200mm? Grab your shorter zooms (if you have them). Don't have them? Go ahead and use the 80-400mm - you really won't be penalized much at all!

III. Optical Performance - When "Just Shooting"

OK - enough of the controlled shooting! How does the new 80-400 perform when you're using it as intended - shooting it in the field under less controlled circumstances? Here's a number of sample images captured in the field under decidedly "non-controlled" real-world conditions, organized into groups by focal length. Note that each image is annotated with both tech specs and some comments, including some which may not be discussed in other places within this review (so it's likely worth looking at the shots). If you are evaluating sharpness, it is best to view the images at 1:1 (100% magnification).

Please note that all these images are covered by copyright. They may be downloaded for your personal use and perusal, but they may not be re-used or re-produced or used in any commercial way without my written permission (contact me if you wish to obtain the rights to use the images).

1. Shot at 80 to 199mm:

• Tranquility (80mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

• Fire in the Sky, Fire in the Water (80mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

• Proud Mama (105mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

• Great Bear Sunset (116mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

• On Edge (135mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

• Water. Dog. (135mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

• Can You See Me Now? (135mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

• October (175mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

• View from the Real Grassy Knoll (180mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

• Hangin' @ the Haulout (116mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)

2. Shot at 200 to 300mm:

• The Great Eagle Rainforest (200mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.1 MB)

• Who Goes There? (200mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.1 MB)

• Blue Kootenay Sunrise (220mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.7 MB)

• Pre-dawn Light (240mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

• Big Bear; Friendly Bear (250mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

• Alone Against the Elements (280mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

• Griz Getting Nosey (280mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

• Feeding Humpbacks - Subtleties and Softness (290mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

• Just Bearing with the Bugs (300mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)

3. Shot at 301 to 400mm:

• Shy Eyes (340mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)

• The Maestro of the Sunrise Sonata (360mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

• Griz on Edge (380mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

• Spring Griz (380mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)

• Forlorn Cub (390mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

• A Snack at Sundown (400mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

• Ours Brun (400mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

• Red On Green (400mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.8 MB)

• Immature Gull in Flight (400mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.7 MB)

• Jose Running (400mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

• Time & Space - Sabine's Gull (400mm): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.9 MB)

IV. Final Conclusion

The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is amazingly versatile lens that performs solidly at all focal lengths. Great focal range. Compact and relatively light. VR that works. Hand-holdable by many. Excellent AF system. Acceptable build quality. A few weak spots in design (awful tripod collar and bad lens hood design). Solid optical performance at all focal lengths - rivaling the 200-400mm f4 VR in sharpness at all overlapping focal lengths, but with a one-stop aperture penalty that MAY be important to some users. At shorter focal lengths the optical performance doesn't quite match the 70-200's, but it isn't far off at all.

Shooters of the big (and expensive) primes shouldn't feel "threatened" about the 80-400mm stealing their advantage in ultimate sharpness, ability to isolate a subject from the background, or low(er) light performance. Users of the 200-400 probably have reason to "look over their shoulder" (so to speak) - the only true advantage I can see to owning that much more expensive (and bigger and heavier) lens is the one extra stop it offers. In this day of cameras with amazing ISO performance is one f-stop actually worth $4,000 or more? That's up to the user/buyer to decide. But I will make two bold predictions. First, the AF-S 80-400mm will become a very common/very popular lens real soon (and very likely to be in short supply, at least in the short term). Second, before long there's going to be a LOT of used 200-400's on the market!

For me, the AF-S 80-400mm VR is a keeper. Owning it won't motivate me to sell my 400mm f2.8 VR prime or my 70-200mm f4 VR zoom. But day-to-day you'll likely find me with the 80-400 on my camera more often than these other lenses. And any regret I had for selling my 200-400mm f4 VR a few years back has just evaporated.

Field Test Index


Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRIINikon's Series 3 tele-converters4 Ways to 400mm
Nikon D7000 - First ImpressionsLensCoat RainCoat ProThe Nikon V1
The Nikon D800The Nikon D4Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR