Nikon AF 80-400mm Review

Nikon AF 80-400mm Review

“Terrific but pricey hand-holdable tele zoom”

nikon nikkor 80-400

Many photographers who purchase telephoto lenses wind up disappointed in their lenses’ performance; they achieve subpar results and then swear that the lens is “not sharp.” Some lenses indeed might not be optically outstanding, but even in these cases the major cause of soft images, particularly when camera and lens are handheld, is camera/lens shake. People routinely try to take highly magnified photos at shutter speeds that are simply too slow.

Nikon has come up with a (partial) solution to this problem through its innovative “vibration reduction” series of lenses. These optics are designed to compensate, at least partially, for the camera shake/movement that is inevitable when a lens is hand-held. According to Nikon, the VR mechanism adds two or more “stops” worth of steadiness, meaning that a 400mm. lens that previously might be adequately handheld at 1/500 second now will (often) produce good results at 1/125. Out in the field this can make the difference between a successful photo outing and a frustrating one.

Does this technology work, and is this 80-400mm. lens a good product overall? To both questions I offer a qualified “yes.” As long as one realizes that VR is not magic and has definite limitations, this feature is definitely worth paying some extra money for, particularly if one’s photographic style prevents the regular and disciplined use of a tripod. The other thing about VR to keep in mind is that since camera shake itself is variable, it’s a good idea always to take multiple photos to ensure that at least one of them is optimally sharp (a slow-mo record of how much one ‘vibrates’ while holding a camera would reveal that from instant to instant there is considerable variation).

But what about this lens’ performance overall? There definitely are some drawbacks and compromises of which potential buyers should be aware. The lens is fairly heavy, and since it utilizes what is now an “old-fashioned” screw-drive AF mechanism, autofocus can seem very slow and noisy. It would be nice if someday Nikon replaced this version of the lens with an AF-S model, but there apparently is no current plan to do this. To minimize the maddeningly slow “searching” that a slow AF lens can exhibit, Nikon has included a “focus limit” switch. This makes it possible to cut the focus range in half, essentially. If one is taking pictures that are all at a distance or are all reasonably close-up, setting the switch to “limit” will restrict the lens’ focusing range, allowing proper focus to be achieved more quickly.

Another drawback is that the removable tripod mount that comes with the lens is simply not very good. Photographers intending to use the lens on a tripod regularly are advised to purchase a third party mount such as that offered by Kirk Enterprises.

Optically, the lens is actually quite remarkable. This is a 5:1 tele zoom, and one would think that given the “jack of all trades” nature of such a beast there would be severe optical compromises. Not so. As with just about all lenses, there is a slight loss of sharpness at full aperture, but once the lens is stopped down even one stop, sharpness at all focal lengths is quite satisfactory. As a bird photographer, I use my lens mainly at 400mm. As compared to my older, manual focus 400mm. Nikkors, the 80-400mm. is not quite as sharp and contrasty, but in practical terms the differences are truly minimal. This lens produces fine images exhibiting good contrast and excellent color rendition. Optically, it’s a winner.

One caveat: because this is a complex zoom built from a large number of optical elements, it does NOT perform particularly well with teleconverters. With certain 1.4x teleconverters such as those in the Kenko Teleplus Pro line, the lens actually will still autofocus (even more slowly, however) and the VR mechanism works, sort of. But there is a notable deterioration of sharpness. With a 2x teleconverter, there is no AF, no VR, and even further reduced sharpness. If working with teleconverters is something you are counting on, stick to a single focal length tele.

Overall, however, for photographers bent on getting sharp photos at longer focal lengths hand-held, this is a fine lens to try and buy. For walkaround bird photographers like myself, it’s nearly ideal. It’s very likely that in a few years this early version of a VR lens will seem antiquated and quaint. For now, however, it represents a very good investment for Nikon users.

More Nikon 80-400mm Reviews from Amazon:

Check out Amazon.com for more reviews of Nikon’s 80-400mm, it has more consumer reviews and reports than any other site online:

reviews of nikon 80-400mm

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Nikon AF 80-400mm Review By Douglas A. Greenberg (Berkeley, CA USA)
- More Reviews from Amazon.com

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