last update: 5 November 2002

  Nikkor ED 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR Review

Nikon's first attempt to match Canon's IS capability is quite decent, but sports a bit of a Jekyl and Hyde personality.

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Ironically, some of the very first image stabilization patents were issued to Nikon, yet for years Canon was the only producer of 35mm lenses with such technology. Even more curious, when Nikon finally introduced the 80-400mm VR lens, they didn't make a huge deal about it (compare the marketing noise for the 80-400mm VR with that of the upcoming 70-200mm VR AF-S lens and you'll see what I mean).

A relatively compact (though stout) 7" when at 80mm, with hood the lens is almost double the length at 400mm.

But I don't really care much about what caused the delay or how much Nikon is marketing the lens. Instead, I'm interested in what the lens can do. I suspect you're the same, so let's dive in, shall we?

 

The Basics

The two major specifications that attract attention to this lens are the long reach (400mm) and the vibration reduction. That 5:1 zoom ratio (80-400mm), is one of Nikon's largest, especially in the telephoto range, and somewhat unusual for a Nikkor. The drawback, of course, is that the maximum aperture starts at f/4.5 and varies up to f/5.6 at the telephoto end. Minimum aperture at 80mm is f/32. (Note, at 400mm, anything above f/22 is going to show diffraction-related defocusing, so I'm unsure why Nikon thought that they needed such a small minimum aperture.) The minimum focus distance is also somewhat poor at 7.5 feet (2.3m). These are not the kinds of specs that most Nikon pros expect in a quality Nikkor. Indeed, at first glance, this lens seems to be specified more like a consumer lens. Which may also explain why it took awhile for it to show up in many pro's cases.

The FDR monument in Washington DC. That's me standing at ease after having sprinted to get into position for a self-timer shot. I actually tried to wave off the person entering on the right, but I like this picture better than the one without the added element. The VR lens was on the tripod with VR off, at 135mm, f/36 and 1/15 of a second. See right column for a close up of the etched words. In a nutshell: sharp. More sharp than you'd expect given the aperture and shutter speed.

Other things you need to know about the lens:

  • Focus is performed through the screw-drive on the camera body. This is not an AF-S lens, and because the screw-drive has to move the mass of the lens elements, which in this case is considerable, this is not a fast focusing lens.
  • As a partial help to the focus speed, Nikon has provided a focus limit switch, which keeps the lens focusing between approximately either 7.5 and 11.5 feet (2.3 to 3.5m) or 16.4 feet to infinity (5m to infinity).
  • The filter size is Nikon's standard 77mm front thread.
  • The lens hood is included. It's reverses onto the lens for storage, and is of the bayonet type. It's a big hood, by the way.
  • Vibration reduction is performed in one of two modes (or can be turned off for use on tripods). A lot of misunderstanding centers around the use of the two modes (more on that in a bit--also see right hand column); Mode 1 runs VR while the shutter is partially pressed and when the shutter is released, thus you see the effect of the tilting lens element (if any) in the viewfinder. Mode 2 only works when the shutter is fully pressed, so you don't see the effect in the viewfinder. Why do you need both modes? Well, you'll see the actual framing only in Mode 1. Since the VR uses a "tilting" element to correct vibration, the framing can change slightly when VR is active. In Mode 2, you won't see what the VR is doing, and may miss-frame slightly. (Note that there is a lot of misinformation about these two settings: setting Mode 2 doesn't mean you should just snap away and expect VR to work perfectly. VR still works best if the camera/lens have time to adapt to the motion/vibration, and for that to happen, you must have the shutter release partially pressed for a moment prior to actually taking the picture.)

Handling

I'll be upfront on this: I don't think Nikon did much thinking about how to make this lens handholdable despite the fact that it is, well, optically optimized for that very thing.

First, we have that big tripod collar (same as on the AF-S 300mm f/4). Sure, it comes off pretty easily, but if it's on, it'll be in your way. Then there's the "finger pinch" front lens bezel. Here's the warning in the manual: "When the camera is pointed down, be careful not to hold the lens at the very end as indicated by the black marks in Fig. F, because the zoom ring or focus ring may rotate and pinch your fingers."

Huh? The camera doesn't have to be pointed down for this to happen, so I don't know what Nikon's crack manual writers were on when they wrote that. Worse still, your fingers will often be in that position because this is a heavy lens and you're likely to be trying to balance it by holding it near the front. The first time the camera racks focus on the lens from near focus to infinity at 80mm and your fingers are in the way, you'll get a rude shock as you think your fingers are about to be crushed by the receding front elements (at longer focal lengths, the front elements are further out and pinching is not likely). Fortunately, there's a small ramp on the bezel that tends to push your fingers out of the way, but it's still possible to get seriously pinched, especially if you have fat fingers.

At 400mm with the lens hood on, the lens extends out to about 14 inches in front of the camera, which makes for an impressive snout (but as we men are sometimes reminded, size doesn't matter, does it?). But what's not impressive is the focus speed or ability to follow focus with certainty. That f/4.5-5.6 maximum aperture strains the autofocus on CAM900 bodies (N65, N80, D100, S2), and you'll find that the lens hunts a lot. Things are a bit better on the CAM1300 bodies (F100, F5, D1 series), but still slower than you'll want it to be.

I also wish the focus limit switch were different, as you can't simply flip the switch without thinking. Why? Well, because when the focus is hunting flipping the focus limit switch will indeed limit focus, but you might have passed the midpoint and be limited on the wrong side if you're not paying attention. I would have preferred a three-position switch (near limited, full focus, far limited), as then you could simply flip the switch one direction or the other depending upon whether your subject is near or far.

I'm not a big fan of the Manual/Automatic focus ring-type switch Nikon is using on their lenses these days, though it works just fine. I don't understand why we need lock positions in addition to a MF/AF switch, but we get them anyway (with a simple switch, the switch is enough of a lock for me). To move the ring into or out of a lock position, you have to press a button.

Like most recent zoom Nikkors, we also don't get a DOF scale on the lens. Not even a single aperture at a single focal length is marked. Amusingly, Nikon takes the time in the manual to give us infrared focus compensation marks, but wouldn't it have been just as easy to mark the lens? What am I going to do with the information that at 135mm the IR focus point is 2.3mm off the focus mark? Well, I'm going to mark my lens. (What, they think I'm going to bring a ruler with me and measure every time?)

As I noted in the 300mm AF-S f/4 review (and above), the tripod collar is a mixed blessing. It moves the balance point to a very good position. It's also easy to find the adjustment knob and rotate (or remove) the collar. Unfortunately, the smooth feel of the old rotating collar Nikon used to use is missing. This new tripod collar drew a number of criticisms when it first appeared. Numerous posts and discussions on the news groups argued that the lens "vibrates" at some shutter speeds, even on a tripod. Indeed, in some cases if you press the mounting foot towards the lens, you'll find that there is some give. Part of the problem is the lock mechanism. If you just turn the knob to a standard "hand tightening" level, the collar isn't working as a single piece, and you can move the foot substantially. If you tighten a little more, most, but not all, of the give disappears. Some users have taken to wedging something between the foot and the lens body to improve the "stability" of the mount, but I've yet to find a situation where I can clearly point to the tripod collar stealing sharpness from a photo. Just make sure to tighten that knob as far as you dare

 

 

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Product Specification

Lens Formula
17 elements in 11 groups; 3 ED elements.
Other Features
Rotating tripod collar, VR (vibration reduction), focus limit switch.
Size and Weight
About 179mm long, 48 ounces (1360g) with collar.
Price
US$1495

 


How sharp is the lens? Here's a closer look at a piece of the sample picture in the review, at left. This was taken at 135mm and f/36, and is darned sharp despite a very slight bit of diffraction softness. Certainly as sharp as any of my other lenses at that focal length and aperture.

How to Use VR
Nikon's manual seems to confuse people. I've seen all kinds of misinformation and bizarre misstatements about how to use the VR, but it really is quite simple. Here's my recommendations:

  • Remove the tripod collar if you're using VRIt just gets in the way of handholding, so pull it off.
  • Use Mode 1 (the double button icon). Why? Because otherwise the viewfinder may not show the actual framing you're going to get.
  • Partially press the shutter release prior to taking a shot. You need to let the VR acquire and adapt to your motion to get the best results. Unfortunately, this intersects with autofocus, which tends to hunt. Personally, I use the lens in manual focus mode most of the time when VR is ON.
  • You don't have to do anything special if you're panning with a subject. The lens figures that out on its own. So the above recommendations still apply.
  • If you put the lens on a tripod, turn VR OFF. And even though Nikon suggests that you leave it ON when the lens is mounted on a monopod, if your monopod is reasonably steady, the VR should probably be OFF. (Of course, if you have a shaky tripod, maybe you should have VR ON, at least until you get a better tripod.)

 

 

Performance

Performance boils down to two things: autofocus speed and sharpness.

Let me report the good news first. From 80 to 300mm, this lens is very sharp. You'll see a bit of softness in the corners on 35mm bodies at larger apertures starting around 300mm, but other than that, there's not much to complain about. With VR active shooting handheld, you should be able to get sharp, detailed images out of this lens at focal lengths up to 300mm. And that's the other good news: the VR works. Even more interesting, the VR is excellent at detecting direction, meaning that if you pan quickly with a moving subject, the vibration reduction is restricted to the other axis (e.g., in this case, vertical movement is canceled, but horizontal movement isn't compensated for).

The bad news is twofold: at above 300mm, the lens can be a touch soft (though not as soft as some suggest--with proper technique, it's a very serviceable 400mm lens, just not exceptionally sharp). And the autofocus is ssssslooooowwww and hunt prone. CAM900 camera bodies (N65, N80, D100, S2) see this slowness even more so than the CAM1300 bodies (F100, F5, D1 series). Why? Because the VR works by looking at all five autofocus sensors all the time. As you may know, the CAM900 has only one crosshatched, low-light capable sensor, while the CAM1300 has three. Yes, it makes a difference, especially in low light. On a CAM1300, the autofocus hunts a bit less and tends to follow moving subjects better. On a CAM900, the lens almost always hunts with moving subjects.

Teleconverters are not recommended with this lens, by the way.

Still have doubts?
The left-hand image is the full frame of a shot taken from the Lincoln Memorial and handheld at 1/2 second and f/5.6 (at 400mm on a D1x). The right-hand image is a closer look at the detail of the Capitol in the lower right corner of the full frame. Those of you familiar with the DC Mall know that the crane whose detail appears just to the left of the Rotunda about midway up the detail image is more than a mile away. When I said the lens isn't an exceptional 400mm lens I meant it, but it is still sharp enough to pull minor detail out of a scene at over a mile. That sharp enough for you? It is for me.

Drawbacks

  • Autofocus Speed. Slow. Hunts. Not a lens that's particularly useful for fast moving objects or sports (unless the object stays a constant distance from you, as in panning, or you use the lens in manual focus).
  • Tripod Collar. A bit of give in the foot if not tightened fully. And it gets in the way of handholding. (Note: Kirk Photo apparently makes a replacement collar for this lens, though it isn't advertised on their site or in their catalog. Try calling them at 260-665-3670.)
  • Handling Issues. The finger-biter front ring, the awkward Automatic/Manual focus switch, and the focus limit switch all contribute to less-than-stellar ergonomics.

Positives

  • Excellent Optics out to 300mm. Fully sharp into the corners up to 200mm, with some softening in the corners of 35mm film images by 300mm. At 400mm, the widest apertures are noticeably softer and provide less contrast than at 300mm, but still quite serviceable. In all, a quite respectable performance for the range. On the digital bodies, hard to fault optically.
  • VR Works. You need to get used to how the VR works, but it works quite well, especially for pans.
 

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Recommended; a decent telephoto zoom with a useful VR function; but not for action shooting, as the AF is too slow.

features
performance
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