Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5/5.6G AF-S VR ED Lens review

This new version 80-400 lens from Nikon has caused much debate and interest since it was launched in March 2013.
The lens it replaced was the original 80-400VR - Nikons first VR equipped SLR lens launched over a decade ago and long overdue for replacement.
The new lens incorporates many improvements over the original - AF-S focus motor, Nano Crystal Coat, improved optics and latest generation VR system are the main ones.

The new 80-400VR is a very well built lens - approximately the same size as the 70-200mm f/2.8VR II. It is supplied with a removable tripod mounting ring (of which more later) and a deep lens hood. The lens hood is flat at the end so the lens can safely be stood up hood down unlike the 70-200VRII.
It is a substantial lens, if you have not handled a similar lens before then we would suggest you call in to one of our showrooms in Burgess Hill or London where the 80-400 is on demonstration.
Optical performance is frankly excellent! This lens is sharp right throughout the range at all apertures you would normally use. Open aperture performance is especially important as you only have wide open f/4.5-5.6 to play with and in this respect the lens does not disappoint.

The lens has Nikon’s special Nano Crystal Coating, which greatly reduce reflections within the lens and all but eliminate flare. It works very well with shooting against the light no problem. Micro contrast is excellent and images really stand out. Only with the sun actually in the frame could any flare be provoked.
AF performance is also excellent - a match for the 70-200 f/2.8VR II when used on later Nikon bodies- and still excellent when you add the optional Nikon TC14EII 1.4 converter (for a 112-560mm range) though slightly slower especially in lower light levels.

We would recommend that for the best AF performance using an F8 capable Nikon body – Like the D600/610, D7100, D800/800E, - or a pro level body – D3/D3s/D4/D300/D300s – and with these generally being larger body SLRs handling and balance is better too.
For this test, we used the lens mainly on the D800E - a camera which shows any optical shortcomings very readily, and also with the D7100 which with its 1.5X effect of the crop (DX) sensor turns the lens in to an impressive 120-600mm. Shooting the Royal family from long distance in the summer with 2x crop mode of the D7100 (so effectively 160-800mm) produced some very pleasing shots. Remarkably, the 80-400 with TC14EII combo will also AF on the D7100 so it is possible to effectively turn the 80-400 in to a 224-1120mm with VR and AF using the 2x crop mode!

The lens balances very well on the D600/610/800 and is very much at home with the D3/D4 series. Adding a better grip if not already built in to your camera will certainly help handling and balance.
The lens extends quite substantially when zooming in to 400mm though the front does not rotate.
VR performance again is excellent. Sharp shots are possible at 4-5 stops below the normal handholding limit providing your subject is still enough.

The limited maximum aperture of f/4.5 at the 80mm end dropping to f/5.6 at 400mm is really the main drawback of the lens.  For most users however, the excellent VR system combined with the excellence of the Nikon range of cameras higher ISO performance outweigh this disadvantage. If you are in to very low light action shooting then you should consider something faster like the 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II lens or maybe the new Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS lens.

So what other options should you look at when considering the 80-400?
·      The 70-200mm f/2.8VR II plus TC20EIII - the new 80-400VR outperforms the 70-200/TC by a decent margin and offers the 5x zoom convenience. Of course, the 70-200 used with the TC20EII will give you f2.8 up to 200mm so for some users this might be a better option.
·      The Nikon 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II lens. The 80-400VR comes very close to the performance of the 300mm without the size and weight penalty and of course can zoom.
·      The Sigma 50-500OS is another good lens but certainly at the longer end of the range is outperformed by the Nikon 80-400VR - it is also much larger and heavier though does go to 500mm.
The only real criticism is that the tripod mount ring is not really up to the job allowing some flexing of the lens when attached to a tripod which is disappointing at this price level.
If you will want to use the lens on a tripod regularly, we would suggest looking at 3rd party replacement Tripod rings from RRS and Kirk - both of which seem to resolve this issue.
When first launch, the price of the lens at around £2450 was criticised, now some months or so on, Park Cameras are selling the lens for under £2000. The fact the lens price has dropped by 20% or so is welcome, but also indicative that the lens is highly desirable and holds its value very well.
In summary, the new Nikon 80-400VR is an excellent upgrade from the original and has a lot to recommend about it. Excellent optics, focusing and VR systems as well as reasonable size and weight (for the range involved) are all compelling reasons for purchase with only the tripod rings and cost negative points.

Please click here to go to the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5/5.6G AF-S VR ED page on the Parkcameras.com website.

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