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Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR Review

by Nikhil Bahl | February 3, 2014

© Nikhil BahlWhen I bought my first long lens (AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II Lens) in 2007 I didn’t even consider the older 80–400mm lens as it was inadequate for my needs. I was looking for a lens to photograph birds and other wildlife. With moving subjects, the auto focus on a lens is critical and the old 80–400mm didn’t cut it. At that time the 200–400mm fit my needs best.

Bird in flight © Nikhil Bahl

I owned that lens for 6 years and enjoyed photographing with it. Although, after purchasing a 600mm lens and using a full frame body (Nikon D3s) as my primary camera, I wasn’t using the 200–400 much. While it’s cumbersome to carry two bulky lenses around, I still found the focal range quite useful. When the new 80–400mm lens was released I was very eager to try it. My interest was high because I like to travel light and this range meant conceivably leaving my 70–200mm and 300mm lens at home. I often used these two lenses to photograph birds in flight (sometimes with teleconverters).

When speaking at the Florida’s Birding & Photo Fest in April 2013, Gary from Hunts Photo graciously allowed me to give the lens a test run. I used the lens for two days photographing nesting birds and a lot of birds in flight. After taking a few thousand photos with the lens I was convinced it was the right lens for me. Since then I purchased the lens and have taken many more photos with it. The following are some of my thoughts on the lens.

Bird portrait close-up © Nikhil Bahl

Bird eye detail, unsharped 100% crop © Nikhil Bahl

Unsharpened 100% crop.

Build

Good build quality, feels robust, zooming is smooth.

Sharpness

The lens is sharp but not as sharp as the exotic telephotos. When looking closely, the images created with the lens don’t have the visual acuity that the 500mm or 600mm have. The lens is sharp enough for me, though. It should be noted that on a full frame body the edges are a little soft wide open. This is not a big deal when photographing wildlife, as your subject is rarely in the corner of the frame. If you do use this lens for landscapes, stop down to f/8 or f/11 for sharpness throughout the picture frame. In general, the lens performs better when stopped down at least one stop and edge-to-edge performance on a crop sensor body is very good.

Auto Focus

I was really impressed with the auto focus from the first time I used the lens; fast enough for birds in flight. It worked great with the Nikon D3s and D300s cameras. It was only in low light situations that the autofocus performance dropped. This should be expected as the aperture is f/5.6 at 400mm.

Sand dunes © Nikhil Bahl

Flare

The provided hood does its job well and the images have good contrast. However, when a light source is within the composition, you will see some flare. It’s not terrible, but it is obvious. What you should be on the lookout for is chromatic aberration in high contrast situations. This is very easily fixed in Lightroom or other post processing software, so nothing to worry about.

Tripod Collar

It’s removable, which is nice. The mounting foot is short, which some people may not like, but it doesn’t bother me as I use a good size quick release lens plate. Of course, Kirk Photo and Really Right Stuff have replacement foots available.

VR

It works as expected and it is very useful when hand holding the lens.

Versatility

I find the focal range very useful. The lens can be used for landscape, wildlife and even macro photography (with a close-up filter or extension tube). I prefer the close-up filter, as no light is lost and the viewfinder stays bright. I really like having a zoom lens for birds in flight. It’s great to have the option to zoom in or out based on how large you want the bird in the picture frame and it’s very useful when a bird is flying straight at you. Being able to zoom out as the bird approaches makes it easier to compose and maintain focus.

Dragonfly © Nikhil Bahl

Dragonfly closeup, unsharpened 100% crop © Nikhil Bahl

Unsharpened 100% crop.

Focus Breathing

With subjects that are close, the lens seems to “loose focal length””. For example, 400mm becomes more like 300mm when the subject is close to the minimum focusing distance (5.74 feet). This is not uncommon (e.g. Nikon 70–200mm f/2.8 VRII) but it is something to be aware of. Depending on how you plan to use this lens, the focus breathing could be considered a drawback.

Compared to Other Options

For those who are looking to get started with wildlife photography, but are not ready to invest $6,000+, it’s an obvious choice. You do get what you pay for. If you are wondering if a 70–200mm f/2.8 or a 300mm f/4 lens may work with teleconverters, I can tell you from experience you will not get the same auto focus performance, even if the sharpness is acceptable. The 300mm f/4 does not have the fastest auto focus and slows down some when used with teleconverters. The 70–200mm f/2.8 lens performs very well with the 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters, but not as well with the 2.0x tc. Don’t forget, the 80–400mm can be used with a 1.4x teleconverter if you have a new camera body (D4, D800, D600, D7100). I haven’t tried any of those combinations yet. There are also options from 3rd party lens makers, like Sigma and Tamron, which might be worth looking into.

Price

The question many people ask, is it worth $2,700. The lens is sharp, the auto focus is very good in normal to bright light and it doesn’t have any glaring faults. It is not bulky and is quite light compared to the exotic telephotos. Considering the other options from Nikon are heavy and much more expensive, I think it is worth the price.

Roseate spoonbill wingspan © Nikhil Bahl

About the Author

Nikhil Bahl is a full time professional photographer, author, educator, workshop instructor and environmentalist residing in the Washington D.C. area. Drawing inspiration from nature, Nikhil adopts novel approaches and seeks meaningful interpretations: to create photographs that transcend the commonplace, reflect deeper insights, and convey an enchantment of the subject's beauty.

An offshoot of Nikhil's fine art photography and love of nature is his documentation of wildlife behaviors and habitats. As a volunteer with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, his goal is to portray environmental stories with an artistic appeal, so his photographs educate and motivate about the imperative of conservation.

Each year Nikhil leads several photography tours and instructional workshops in the United States and abroad. His teaching encourages participants to advance beyond ordinary photos and develop their own style and vision. Nikhil is a regular speaker at photography clubs, expos and industry events. He authored the acclaimed eBook, Creative Interpretations and writes articles on the creative and technical aspects of photography.

Nikhil's work has been published in a number of print and electronic media and his fine art prints have been widely exhibited in the Washington metropolitan area, and are part of many private collections.

See more of Nikhil's work at www.nikhilbahl.com.

9 thoughts on “Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR Review

  1. An excellent” real world” review.

    I own Sigma 70-200 and 150-500mm lenses and I am thinking of selling both to fund this Nikon.
    I have been wondering if I really will get sharper images.

    This review has helped me decide thanks!

  2. HelloNikhil. Did I read correct that you think that this lens is just a hairpin less sharp than the 200 to 400? I own the VR2 version of that lens. I am on the fence right now but still holding steady.The size is tempting but I am a staunch razor sharp fanatic. Cecil

    • Cecil,
      I owned the first VR version of the 200-400mm lens. My understanding is that optically, not much changed between the VR and VRII versions. If I were to compare the two lenses at pixel level then the 200-400mm lens is sharper. Don’t get me wrong, the 80-400 is sharp. Although, if you are a “razor sharp fanatic” you will see the difference. Please note: the reason I gave up the 200-400mm lens was because of the bulk. I didn’t want to carry a 200-400mm and a 600mm lens when traveling. The 80-400mm meets most peoples needs just fine. Both the lenses in question are different tools though.

      I should add one more thing. 200-400mm does better with teleconverters in terms of sharpness. I used the 80-400mm with the nikon 1.4x tc and spotted visible degradation in the image quality. Not unusable but more degradation that you get with the 200-400mm lens.

      If you were trying to decide between the two lenses, go with the 200-400mm if reach (with tc’s) is really important. The 80-400mm may not quite match the image quality of the 200-400mm but it does give you a very versatile zoom range along with the ability to handhold for long periods of time.

  3. Nice article.
    For me, the details found in nature (dependent on image sharpness) are what is spectacular about the natural world, and so always a requirement of my image making.
    When I see non sharpened images that are posted as examples of a lenses quality, I am left wondering if and how much additional sharpness can be attained, so the posted images become somewhat pointless, and even more so when they are not being compared to anything. Am I missing something?

    • Thanks for you comment, Steve!
      The reason reviewers provide unsharpened images is so everyone can judge the amount of sharpness the lens gives you to start with. Since we all look at our unsharpened images during our workflow, it is a good way to compare the sharpness with another lens. Providing a sharpened image would be an example of what the lens and the reviewers sharpening skills combined can do, which would be rather misleading when we are trying to judge what the lens is capable of.
      Hope that makes sense.
      Nikhil

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