If you need to get to 400mm, and don’t have the £9995 (I kid you not) lying around for the latest and greatest Nikon 400mm f/2.8 beast, then this is a much more reasonable (although not cheap) way of doing so.
Of course, it is always better to get closer to your subject if you can, but sometimes that just isn’t possible – wildlife and sports come to mind. For these subjects, often what you need is reach, and a fast lens, and the new 80-400mm AF-S fits the bill, with the flexibility of a good zoom range, and the aid of VR (vibration reduction) helping to offset the slower, variable aperture.
This is a ‘real world’ review, I focus (pun intended) on how the lens works for me. I don’t shoot walls, I don’t shoot test charts, and I won’t be filling the page with 100% crops from the very edge of the frame. This is my lens, I bought it full price, and I still own it.
If you are looking for a review that covers the minutiae of every single feature, then I am afraid you are in the wrong place. If you want to see some images shot by an ordinary person with this lens, in ordinary use, then read on.
Whilst there may well be some small comparisons to other lenses of mine, this is really a standalone review, taking the 80-400mm on its own merits.
I got mine from Amazon here.
At the end of the day, we all want a lens that is sharp, and this is certainly sharp to my eyes, both on screen and in print. For the subjects I shoot with it, often hand held, the only thing really limiting sharpness is my technique (often hand held, or shooting from a vehicle on a beanbag, or subject movement. I have only used this lens with my current primary camera, the Nikon D7100, and this combination has been perfectly suited for the conditions and uses I have used it in so far.
The 24mp sensor and lack of low pass filter on the D7100 really bring out any defect in lenses, and the new camera led to me selling my Sigma 150-500mm lens. It simply wasn’t sharp enough. This lens more than makes up for it.
I had the old version of this lens as a rental for a 3 week trip to South Africa and Mozambique, used in partnership with one of my old D90 bodies. Whilst I was happy overall with the combo, and came away from the trip with plenty of images I was happy with, I did feel the lens was a bit sluggish, which was due to the way the old lens focussed – using the focus screw from the camera body.
This new version has the long awaited (over a decade since the old one came out) upgrade to a focus motor built into the lens, hence the AF-S designation (AutoFocus-Silentwave motor).
It is worlds apart from the previous lens, and much better than the (admittedly much cheaper) Sigma 150-500mm. Whilst it may take a few moments to go from minimum focus to infinity, it must be remembered that this is a complex lens, and there is a lot of glass to shift. As long as your focus is in the right sort of zone, it rarely hunts, although being a slower lens it does sometimes struggle in low light.
The AF-S designation means it is also possible to manually override the focus at any time, by simply turning the focus ring. No need to flip a switch to be able to tweak focus. That said, I only ever really use this to get the focus ‘nearly there’ when switching from a close to a distant subject.
Coupled with the D7100 I am easily able to track focus on fast moving objects.
VR is a real help under certain conditions, and most of my current lenses have some form of VR or Optical Stabilisation (OS). Shooting under less than optimal conditions, VR enables me to effectively gain 2-3 stops of light. As the light drops, VR becomes even more useful. Coupling the great VR this lens has, with the superb high ISO performance of the D7100 allows me to keep the shutter speed at a reasonable level for such a long lens. When the shutter speed drops too low, I take a short burst of images and pick the best.
Handheld, indoors under artificial lighting, ISO 3200, 200mm, 1/20 second! The tip of the nose is not in focus, as I was at f/5.3, shooting through glass.
Handheld, deep in the undergrowth on a walking safari, ISO 3200, 400mm, 1/200 second
Braced on the side of a safari vehicle, ISO 6400, 400mm, 1/13 second. Yes, 1/13, not a typo!
The range from 80mm to 400mm covers an awful lot of the range that I would expect to use for wildlife or sports. I am not into birding in a big way, and birders generally want as much reach as humanely possible, and the flexibility of being able to go from shooting an animal in its habitat, then zooming in for a head shot is very worthwhile for me.
I shoot this on a D7100, which is a DX (crop) sensor, so the lens is actually the equivalent of 120-600mm on a full frame body. Coupled with my 17-50mm wide zoom, I cannot honestly think of a situation I would be in shooting where my every need was not covered, other than macro or birding.
It’s a hefty lens, and much better built than the Sigma 150-500mm I had, yet it isn’t quite up to the standards of Nikon’s ‘pro’ f/2.8 lenses, or the super telephotos of 400mm and above. That said, this lens is in the region of several thousand pounds cheaper than the super teles, and has a bigger zoom range than the f/2,8 pro lenses, coupled with many more pieces of glass to move internally. It is built to a price, there is no doubting that, but I have so far had no trouble with any aspect of it during my use, including the extreme heat of Namibian deserts, humidity of the Swaziland lowveld, and a cold and damp Brands Hatch.
It’s rubbish, in fact it’s worse than rubbish. It is far too small and far too flimsy for a lens like this, especially when you consider the camera this lens is probably mounted to won’t be the lightest model Nikon make. You can see the end of the lens move when on the tripod.
I do a lot of handholding, or use the lens resting on a bean bag, so this is not as much of an issue for me as it will be for those who always use a tripod, but I do occasionally mount it on a tripod, so I splashed the cash on a Kirk replacement tripod foot. This is a much improved foot, actually contacting the camera in 2 places, almost eliminating the potential for wobble introduced by the foot.
It’s easy to knock off, and when fitted in the reverse position (for storage) it makes it almost impossible to reach the zoom ring if you want to grab a quick shot. If you want to use the zoom ring then the hood needs to come off. Not the greatest design, and I often wonder if deeper cut-outs would have helped.
They all feel the same, so it is impossible to set them purely by feel. At a minimum I would have liked for the focus limiter switch to have been a bit more proud, as this is generally the only I will change whilst shooting.
A sticky issue. I paid £1900 new, yet at the time the old version could be found for £1000 or so. A £900 increase for the better focus motor was a big pill to swallow, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that cameras had moved on a lot, and the new lens was designed for the much higher resolutions on modern cameras.
There are lower price options, especially if you don’t need to get out to 400mm, or the flexibility of a zoom, but at the end of the day I felt that the lens offered what I needed, at a price I could (just about) justify. The lens is also fine on full frame if I should ever go that route, some of my lenses are not, so they will need replacing.
It’s still a lot of money, although looking at second hand prices it does seem as if they are holding their value fairly well. It is my belief that you are better off spending money on good lenses, than on buying the most expensive body. A good lens should last you a decade, whereas a (digital) camera body starts to feel long in the tooth after just 2-3 years.
It is an amazing lens, but is not for everybody. It requires a bit of commitment in its use, as sloppy technique will be punished heavily at 400mm. It’s big, heavy and expensive, has a variable aperture and questionable accessories. However, it seems to be almost the ideal lens for general wildlife and sports shooting, with the flexibility to switch from a tight head shot to a view taking in the surroundings. For those who need the reach and flexibility it makes a fantastic piece of glass.
I got mine from Amazon here.