Friday, March 29, 2013

Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G lens: A hands on review

The eagerly awaited update to Nikon's 80-400mm lens has finally arrived with a completely new optical and body design along with an impressive list of new features that will have long lens officionados drooling with envy. The older model was first introduced back in 2000 and was also the first lens to feature a VR (vibration reduction) system. A lot has happened to digital lens design in twelve years, and the new model comes with all the latest innovations. Of course this also means it comes in at with a heftier price tag, almost double the price of the earlier model. Naturally, this begs the question: What do you get for the additional price?

The new Nikon 80-400mm G lens shown here at full 400mm extension on a Nikon D600 camera.
For starters, Nikon has added an internal auto-focus motor so the lens no longer needs to use the camera motor. This feature alone extends the use of the lens to camera models that do not come with internal motors. The motor is also quicker, smoother, and quieter than its predecessor. The VR system is now rated to four shutter speed equivalency. This is important for a long lens of this type that can be easily carried around and is tempting to use hand held. Many of the test images in this post were taken hand held.

The optical system has been completely redesigned and now includes four ED lens elements and one Super ED element along with Nano Chrystal Coating for added reduction of flare. We will see in some of the test images below just how impressive this new design really is.

The body of the lens has also been redesigned. Although a bit longer (8.1" vs 6.7" for the former model), the body is sleeker and doesn't have the pregnant guppy look of the older model. At full extension the lens measures 10.25" (26cm) without the massive lens hood, which adds another 3.75" to the overall package. The filter size is still 77mm in keeping with most Nikon pro lenses. A lock has been added to the lens body to keep it in the 80mm position and prevent it from sliding open when carried on your shoulder.

Interestingly, in closed position the new 80-400mm lens is similar in size and weight to the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

The lens set to its 80mm position is almost the same size and weight as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom shown lower right for comparison in the above photo.

Once the lens is fully extended to 400mm and a hood is added, its size increases from 8.1" to 14". Even so, it seems much less bulky than the older model 80-400mm.
A major plus for this new model lens is that it can accept the Nikon tele-converters, and with the 1.4x converter attached its focal length is increased to 550mm (825mm on DX) with an f/8 aperture, while still maintaining autofocus capability. If you want to see just how good this combination of tele-converter and lens is, download the full res version of the photo below.

This image of a terracotta detail on the Flat Iron Building was taken with a 1.4x Nikon tele-converter mounted on the 80-400mm lens resulting in a maximum aperture of f/8. The lens was hand held at 1/1000 second for this shot.  You can download the full resolution version by clicking here.
The most anticipated aspect of this new lens is its performance in terms of its resolution, and whether that can also be carried into the corners of the image. To that end I conducted a series of practical ("hands on") tests to access its abilities. I am also including images taken with the 1.4x tele-converter because having Nikon include it as part of the lens design is big news and very important.

Below is a series of test images that illustrate the resolution of various focal lengths at their widest lens aperture. The bottom image has the Nikon 1.4x tele-converter attached to deliver 550mm. When you look at all these images, I feel confident that you will see what I saw, namely that considering the price and conveniences of this lens design, the results are very impressive, and probably best of class.

185mm f/5.3  Download high res here.
270mm f/5.6  Download high res here.
400mm f/5.6   Download high res here.

550mm (with 1.4x tele-converter)   Download high res here.

While I wouldn't expect anyone to use a lens like this for close-ups, it is nice to know that it can auto focus closer than would be expected for this focal length  5.74' (1.75m) or 4,92' (1.5m) in manual focus mode with a reproduction ratio of about 0.2x.

I took this photo to illustrate how close this lens can focus. While impressive, the close focus ability of this type of lens is not too important because there are far better and more convenient options available if you want to get this close.
Focusing was quick and accurate with the new internal motor. The lens has both M/A (autofocus with manual ovreride priority) and A/M (manual override of autofocus with priority given to autofocus) autofocus modes.  Because the lens is no longer reliant upon a camera motor it can function on many of the latest Nikon consumer cameras that do not have this feature.

This image of New York's finest wildlife is tack sharp with very quick autofocus and good tracking ability at 400mm despite the fact that the squirrel was moving very rapidly up the tree..
Of major concern is how much the optical performance has been improved. My own tests, which you can download below, demonstrates a very high resolution with and extra surprise of good corner sharpness.

At a median focal length of 160mm the lens performance is excellent. Click here to download a high res version of this image.

This image taken at 400mm and wide open aperture of  f/5.6 demonstrates the edge and corner sharpness of the lens. Look at the right side of the building only, as the left side is receding away from us and would never be in focus at this aperture. Check out the corners in particular to see just how good this lens is, even wide open. Stopping down by even one stop improves it further. Click here to download the high res image.
This is the building from the photo above shot with the zoom set to 80mm. I think you will agree that at its shortest focal length the performance of this lens is excellent. Click here to download a high res version.
As mentioned, the new VR system provides a four stop latitude for hand held shooting. This would be a bulky lens to hand hold without motion blur,  even at fairly high shutter speeds. Many of the photos in this "hands-on" test were shot hand held. I boosted the ISO to obtain shutter speeds in excess of 1/1000 second where possible. Normally, tests should be done in optimum, tripod mounted conditions, but the purpose of my reviews is to demonstrate the performance a photographer could actually expect in normal usage and in less than ideal circumstances.

This photo was shot hand held at 1/100 second, a very slow speed for a lens of this size and weight. Click here to download a high res version.


I own the older version of this lens so I know where we are coming from. I own the Nikon 200-400mm lens so I know the standard to which we can aspire. Throughout these tests I could not help but compare the results I can achieve with the other two lenses. There is no question this lens is a giant leap forward from its predecessor in terms of resolution, build, autofocus, VR, and physical design. Coupled with the advances of the newer digital cameras this lens is a very convenient alternative to the huge, fast aperture teles and 200-400mm zoom. This is not to say the image quality is better than Nikon's largest glass, but it does mean that in practical uses the new 80-400mm provides an excellent alternative, particularly where portability, convenience, and spontaneity are taken into consideration. I am giving serious thought to whether I even need to keep the redundancy of my 200-400mm. Newer cameras with excellent results at higher ISO ranges, coupled with the improved VR technology of the latest lenses tend diminish the need for super fast aperture optics. Admittedly, faster apertures mean better selective focus, but at such long focal lengths even f/5.6 or f/8 tend to be sufficient.

This lens is nearly double the cost of its predecessor, but the improvements I have seen are well worth the extra cost, particularly when you consider that this lens can be a replacement for much more expensive telephoto optics. At 80-400mm full frame FX camera  (120-600mm on a DX camera) with an ability to push out to 550mm (825mm on DX!) when coupled with the 1.4x tele-converter, this may be the only super tele anyone would ever need.

At full focal length extension this is one impressive looking piece of glass.

Even at f/11 and full 400mm extension selective focus is achievable.
The Manhattan Bridge and Empire State Building at 400mm f/7.1
Topping off the new World Trade Center at 400mm and f/7/1. Click here to download the high res file.
Since writing this review, DxOMark has completed their tests of the this new 80-400mm zoom and compared it to the older version and Sigma 120-400mm -- all tests done on a Nikon D800. Essentially, they agree with what I said here.  You can read their test results and review here: DxOMark.


  1. Thank you for the review and pics. I owned the older version (which I wore out shooting sports with on a D3X), and have been waiting for this update since last year. Soon as I sell a couple of other lenses, this one is going to be attached to one of my cameras, and may never come off.

  2. Thanks for this detail, very interesting and the lens looks very promising.
    I already have the older 80-400mm, so I am trying to justify to myself the substantial upgrade cost.
    Could you possibly add a comparison, since you also have the older lens ? e.g. same shot with both lenses at 400mm f8 or somesuch ?
    Thanks again

    1. I traded my older model in on the new one, but I do have some comparison shots done with it on a post I did on the Sigma 150-500mm. You can see that post here:

      In this sample you will notice that the corners are definitely soft -- nothing like the images from the newer model in this post.

    2. Thanks for quick reply.
      Have now looked at your previous report, very interesting.

  3. A couple of things
    1. The old 80-400 had an internal VR motor as well, as do all VR lenses. No Nikon camera has a VR motor. It's the autofocus motor that is now in the lens, with AF-S.
    2. The close-up capability is less than that of the previous lens per Nikon's specs - not 1.5x actual size magnification (which is more than the 1:1 of a typical macro lens), but about 0.2 x actual size (1/5 actual size on the sensor) This is a lower magnification ratio than the previous 80-400, even though it focuses a bit closer (to 4.9 feet).

  4. Thanks for catching these errors. Both have been corrected. I guess that's what I get for working on these posts too late at night.

  5. I have the Sigma 120-400 for Nikon and have picked up the new Nikon 80-400G reviewed here and with that I have two comments. I no longer need to keep the lens stopped down to f8 or f9 to get sharp results. Focus speed is so much faster it's simply incredible.

  6. Thanks for the review. I particularly appreciate the sample photos. I'm currently using a Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR and have been fortunate to obtain reasonably decent images but the reach is just shy of what I need. I've been looking at the Nikon 300mm f/4 and even the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S with a TC-20E III. Your review has convinced me to seriously consider this new 80-400mm.

  7. Thank you for the review. I, too, received a new 80-400 lens 2 weeks ago and shot some pictures on a tripod, mirror up, with remote cable with the lens and with a 1.4 teleconverter. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the corner sharpness was with the new lens and VERY surprised as to how good it was with the teleconverter. My subjective look at my pictures agree with what you posted above. After reading your review, I hope my wife feels better about the money I spent!

  8. Thank you so much for your review. It was very useful to me. Looking forwards to more posts !!

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  9. Hi Tom - Thanks for the review, and the link to your previous review of the Sigma 150-500mm OS Lens. I own and use this lens, as you did. What improvements can I expect with the new Nikon 80-400mm?

    Mike Bush
    Los Osos, CA

    1. The new Nikon 80-400mm is really a superior lens, particularly in the corners. I realize that the Sigma can go to 500mm, but with a 1.4x TC the Nikon can go to 560mm, and it works really well at that length.

  10. Did you do any sharpening of your images either in camera or post processing?

    1. No. I rarely ever use any sharpening on my photos.

  11. I am loving this new lens, however, paired with my D7000 body + 1.7TC, I am experiencing problems with acquiring focus (lots of hunting) and maintaining focus...anyone else have this issue, and can you advise what I might be doing wrong?

    1. With the 1.7TC and the lens racked all the way out, it means you have a maximum aperture of f/9.5. Modern Nikon cameras only guarantee focus up to f/8. The 1.4TC is the only extender that is meant to work with this lens because it results in an f/8 aperture. That said, I did have some good results with the 1.7TC but only on contrasty subjects. Otherwise, as you say, it hunts.

    2. Thanks, I am an enthusiast, learning as I go! I also have the 70-200mm 2.8, so it makes sense now why I don't have the same problems with that lens.

      Would an FX body camera make a difference, say, the D800, or would the issue be the same?

    3. All the newer FX bodies, D4, D800, D600 would have the same f/8 auto-focus limitation.

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. For those with a 70-200 f2.8 VR2 who might be tempted to use a TC2.0 III, check the comparison on this link.

    The 80-400 is definitely sharper - and lighter than the teleconverter combo- though more expensive. The 70-200 on a D800 enlarged is still sharper than with the TC2.0...

    So... if money is not an issue, the 80-400 does look a good option... though I am hoping the price will come down...

  14. Tom,
    I enjoyed your review of this new lens. I am currently using the AF-SVR 70-300/4.5-5.6G IF-ED 'kit' lens that came in a bundle with my D-90. I am shooting birds and birds in flight and need more reach. I am trying to decide between this new 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 G lens and a Nikon 1.4 TC or the Sigma 500mm 4.5 prime lens. I would still be using the D-90 body. Any suggestions? Thanks

    1. You may want to check to see if our d90 will focus with a 1.4x on the 80-400. I know the new Nikon bodies will, but the older ones may not.

  15. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for this detailed and wonderful review. I am a first time DSLR owner and bought Nikon D7100 just a week back (still struggling and learning).
    My confusion is between Nikon 80-400mm vr ii and Sigma 150-500mm.

    How do you think Nikon 7100 and 80-400 pair in terms of giving better pictures vis a vis sigma 150-500mm

    1. Now sure why my name is showing as unknown. I am Sajid from india

    2. I like the results I achieved with the Nikon over those of the Sigma. Plus, on your camera body you could also add a 1.4x extender and take the lens out to 560mm. That would be 840mm on a D7100. Wow!

  16. Thanks for a very interesting review, I also read the one with the old 80-400 and Sigma 150-500, since the Sigma is what I "come from". I use a Nikon D7100 body (came from D90 when the D7100 was released).

    To me, the sharpness of this new 80-400 is simply amazing. The detail level of my pics is SO much higher. I mostly use it for bird photography and my pics have reached a new level, since you have to crop them pretty hard normally, even at 400 or 500 mm. I feel like I have gone from an amatuer lens that can take good pics occationally if you are lucky, to a lens that normally perform excellent and the best pics are pure pro quality. I did a few tests to adjust AF (did not have to) and compared it with the old Sigma, it was amazing, it is like night and day. The Nikon is really super sharp.

    The AF is super fast, the Sigma was good, but this is a lot faster.

    The image stabilization is also superb, but I must say that I found the Sigma's excellent as well. I have not seen much improvement, but that is because Sigma's was good, not because Nikons is bad.

    That was the pros, what about the cons then, I would say the tripod mount, the Sigma has a superb one, working as handle both for carrying but also for the actual photography, where you can put your elbow/arm towards your body to get great support, that is not possible with the Nikon. So I have to adjust my camera handling a bit, I guess it will take a while.

    And so far, I have actually not found the AF perfect for BIF (birds in flight) I think I have to work a lot more to get that good, the potential is there, but a lot of pics are totally unsharp, a lot more than I had with the Sigma is totally out of focus.

    Thanks again for a great reveiw and hope my additions can help someone! :-)

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  18. Great information...thanks for the post.

    I have been using a Canon DSLR and a Canon 100-400L lens for photographing birds and other wildlife and recently purchased a Nikon D7100 with the Nikon 80-400G lens (pricy). However, I have been somewhat disappointed as the old Canon lens still seems to out perform the new Nikon lens. Any thoughts about that? Most of the reviews that I have read seem to indicate that the new Nikon 80-400g lens should out perform the Canon 100-400L lens...

  19. More... should have added that the photos from the Nikon lens seem soft compared to the Canon lens. Sorry, should have added that comment in my original comment.