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Quick Take on the New Nikon 80-400 AF-S VR

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You have to hand it to Nikon. We may wait a long time for the lens improvement we want, but once Nikon announces it, they get it in our hands pretty quickly. Unlike, say, the Canon 200-400 f/4 Unicorn Bigfoot lens. I’ve been screaming for some time that this was the lens in the Nikon lineup most in need of a makeover. When I got back from vacation checking out the new Nikon 80-400mm AF-S VR was my first order of business.

Conclusion

I put this first because I know that 50% of people who visit this page will just scroll down to the conclusion anyway. This saves you a couple of turns on the scroll wheel. (I think 40% have already left when they realized this wasn’t a video review because reading is so hard.)

  • The new lens is optically better than the old Nikon 80-400mm AF VR throughout the zoom range. It is also better than the Sigma 50-500mm OS at 300mm and 400mm.
  • Autofocus is faster and more accurate than the old Nikon 80-400mm AF VR, and vibration reduction seems at least a stop better.
  • The new lens is slightly wider than the original version at both ends. Assuming the original is 80-400mm (it isn’t, exactly) the new one is about 75-385mm. For example, if you shoot the new lens set to 87mm it frames exactly the same image as the older version set at 80mm. The  new lens at 400mm frames exactly the same image as the original lens set at 385mm.  This isn’t a plot; most zoom lenses vary from ‘written’ focal length by 5% or so. But it might be important to one or two people.
  • Nice as the lens is, I wouldn’t pay $2,700 for it. When the price drops in a few months I’d be more interested, but for $2,700 I expect “Oh, wow” performance and this lens I would consider as “very good”.

Appearance

The new version doesn’t have a “II” on it, and mercifully does not have an “X” anywhere in the name. It is called simply the “AF-S” 80-400mm as opposed to the original “AF” 80-400. You won’t have any trouble telling them apart, though. The new one is significantly larger (almost as large as the Sigma 50-500 OS in closed position). As far as weight goes, the new 80-400 tips the scales at 3.5 pounds, compared to 3 pounds for the original AF version and 4.33 for the Bigma OS.

 

Left to right: the Nikon 80-400 AF-S , Sigma 50-500 OS, and NIkon 80-400 AF  Joey Miller, Lenrentals.com

 

With barrels extended, though, the new Nikon isn’t quite as intimidating as the Bigma.

 

Left to right: Nikon 80-400 AF-S, Sigma 50-500 OS, and Nikon 80-400 AF Joey Miller, Lensrentals.com

 

So, what all do you get with that extra half pound? Optically, the new version has 20 elements in 12 groups with one Super ED and 4 ED elements, compared to the old versions 17 elements in 11 groups with 3 ED elements. Computer generated MTF charts show better performance, particularly in the edges and corners.

 

80-400mm AF lens (left) and new AF-S lens (right)

The Tripod Ring

Just want to say you heard it here first. The good news is the new 80-400 has an actual ring like the old version, not the foot-mounted-on-a-plate-bolted-to-the-lens that the Nikon 70-200mm VR II has (the plate is problematic and bends sometimes). The bad news is the ring is very thin. In fact the old 80-400 ring weighed 5.6 ounces, but the new one, larger in diameter, weighs just 3.2 ounces. I’m all for saving weight, but doing so on the tripod ring that will support around 5 pounds of lens and camera makes me a bit anxious.

Mounted on the lens, the ring does seems quite sturdy, so it may be an engineering triumph. Take it off of the lens, though, and you can actually bend it out of round by just squeezing it in your hand. (Of course I had to try it. It looked like it would bend.) I’m hopeful this is just a brilliant design that will save weight yet be superbly sturdy. But I’m a little nervous about it.

Aperture

Both the old and new lenses are f/4.5 to f/5.6 but the point at which the maximum aperture reduces is rather different. Not that it matters often when shooting this type of lens, but the older version actually has a bit wider aperture through most of the zoom range.

The Sigma 50-500 OS is an f/4.5 to f/6.3 lens but in reality the area of f/4.5 is fairly limited. Through most of the range the Sigma’s maximum aperture will be a half-stop slower than the Nikon’s.

Nikon 80-400 AF Nikon 80-400 AF-S Sigma 50-500 OS
f/4.5< 130mm< 140mm< 75mm
f/5130mm - 380mm140mm - 280mm75mm - 130mm
f/5.6> 380mm> 280mm130mm-200mm
f/6.3> 280mm

 

Optical Testing

One thing I will mention is that all three of these lenses don’t really get sharper in the center when stopped down. The corners sharpen up a bit, but that’s about it.

To keep the graphs from getting too complex, I will show the Imatest results for the Nikons at f/4.5 at 80mm, f/5.3 at 200mm, f/5.6 at 300 and 400mm (the max aperture of the AF-S lens). The Sigma is at f/5 at 80mm, f/6 at 200mm and f/6.3 at 300 and 400mm. So basically the results are wide open at each focal length, except that the older AF Nikon is stopped down just a bit at 300mm to match the aperture of the new lens.

The graphs below show each lens  with center MTF50 shown as a blue diamond and average MTF50 as a red square, shot on a Nikon D3x. We’ll start with the original 800-400, then the Sigma 50-500 OS, and finally the new 800-400 AF-S.

 

The results are pretty apparent. The Sigma 50-500 OS has a bit higher resolution than the original Nikon 80-400 AF lens, and the new AF-S lens clearly has higher resolution than the Sigma. It also has faster autofocus than the original version and a clearly superior vibration reduction system.

The new lens also eliminates the original versions’s 2% barrel distortion at 80mm, having only 0.3%. Pincushion distortion at the long end is a very reasonable 1.1%. (The other two are also very reasonable, at 1.3% for the Nikon AF, and 1.6% for the Sigma.)

Editorializing

I’m not one to run screaming into the hills because a lens is expensive. Sometime they are expensive because they’re worth it. In this case, when the Sigma 50-500 costs $1500 and the original Nikon 80-400 AF (not my favorite lens at all, but adequate) costs $1400 I’m struggling with the price.

Basically I could get one of those two and another nice lens for what the Nikon 80-400 AF-S is costing at the moment. When the price drops to $2,000 or so I’d consider it worth the difference, but not at $2,700. At this price you’d have to consider a Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8. A significantly larger lens, of course, so not an option in many cases, but f/2.8 for about the same money is an option to think about.

On the other hand, in 6 months the price will probably be significantly lower. Nikon has been fairly quick with price drops lately. If I already had the older version I’d certainly hold on to it for a bit. The new one is better, no question. I’m just not sure it’s worth double the price.

But if you just have to have the best f/5.6 telephoto zoom right now and damn the price, well, the Nikon 80-400 AF-S would be the one you need.

Roger Cicala
Lensrentals.com
March 2013

43 Responses to “Quick Take on the New Nikon 80-400 AF-S VR”

gigi said:

fantastic, so its a “will buy it”

Ed Cicenas said:

Appreciate the written, the video reviews are just too hard…

Jacob delaRosa said:

First thoughts that popped in my head when I saw this lens:

“For rich doctors on Safari”

Byron said:

Thanks for the quick take; I’ve been wondering how this new lens shakes up ever since it was announced. What I’d be really curious about is how the new 80-400mm compares to the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S with and without the TC-14E attached. I started out with the 300mm f/4, defected to the Bigma OS for a couple of years, and have now sold that and gone back to the 300mm f/4 again due to its lighter weight and its more consistent image quality, although it was a tough call.

I’d also be interested to know how the 80-400mm holds its sharpness at longer distances. The interesting thing about the Bigma that I noticed after using it for a while was that it was excellent at short distances (equal if not better than the 300mm f/4), but that sharpness dropped off significantly photographing more distant subjects (e.g., more than 15m out). Given what Thom Hogan has written about the Nikon 200-400mm and its decreased sharpness at long distances, I have to wonder if telephoto zooms all suffer from this problem, including the new 80-400mm.

Finally, I completely agree on the price being way too high. $2,700 was exactly what it cost me to pick up an old Sigma 500mm f/4.5, which is of course much more massive, but longer and faster, and probably also sharper than the 80-400mm for the same price. If the new 80-400mm compares well to the 300mm f/4, and the price dips below $2,000, then I’d consider it. In the meantime, I’ll probably just rent it from you guys someday.

Cole Stipovich said:

I think most of us come for the writing, and stay for the conclusion (or something like that).
Thanks for the review!

Jmiguez said:

Thanks for a nice review. I own the Sigma 50-500 and consider it one of the best, if not the best value in long telephoto lenses around. Maybe, Sigma will upgrade the 50-500?

John

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Byron,

I was trying to keep this brief so I didn’t add the 300 f/4 (and don’t have with TC data – our lab can’t test past 400mm) but the 300 f/4, at f/4 is exactly as sharp in the center as the new 80-400 VR AF-S and better in the corners. Stopped down to f/5.6 (a fair comparison) it is a bit better in the center (not very much, just a bit).

I can’t say with the TC on what it would be like – but I suspect it would be very close to dead even with the new lens. I thought it a bit better than the old.

Roger

Dirk M said:

About the price: We should consider that the old AF 80-400 was over $2,000 when it came out in 2001 as well. In todays dollars, that’s more than the launch price of the new AF-S 80-400. Of course that doesn’t help with the sticker shock when comparing it with the older, heavily discounted lens today, but it’s not like Nikon suddenly doubled their prices or anything.

Jay said:

Roger,

Thanks for the first objective review. How would you compare the new 80-400 AFS to the 200-400 VRII in terms of focus speed & sharpness at infinity?

Tazqa said:

If this was a video review, I’d have left as I read faster rather than sitting through a video.
The price is still not justified and supposedly still slow in focusing as opposed to other af-s lenses. I’ll stick to my Bigma a while longer although not as sharp but plenty fast in focusing.

Steve said:

LOL. I would have left if it was a video review.

Abhijit K said:

Is the new Nikon 80-400 in a similar league as the Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6L? Great picture quality but you need to pay more than what most folks are accustomed to for an f/5.6 zoom?

Lynn said:

A lot of people seem to be asking how the new 80-400 AF-S compares to the 70-200 VRII + TC-20III. I’m guessing if you need the reach that the former is a better bet, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Brian said:

^^^ What Lynn said! I have a new 70-200 VRII. Any performance data comparing it coupled with a TC-20III compared to the 80-400 AF-S?

derek said:

it is a good lens and I tried it personally at Nikon SC here and confirmed it.
but I prefer the 70-200f2.8VR2+ TC2.0 on my D800 better, it is faster and much smaller than the new AFS80-400VR2 lnes.

I hate any zoom extends itself this much when zoomed in.

Byron said:

I’ve tried the 70-200 VR II with all three Nikon TCs. It’s pretty good with the TC-14 and even the TC-17, but I was unimpressed with its performance with the TC-20E III. The AF speed and contrast are fine, but the images lack fine detail, and are soft at 100% magnification. I find both the Sigma 50-500 and the Nikon 300mm f/4 to be superior to the 70-200 with the TC-20E III.

SoulNibbler said:

Thank You, Thank You!
I hate video reviews! And I’m really annoyed by the large number of photo sites (LL I’m glaring at you) that put up video content with no transcripts. I don’t mind reading ums and other verbal ticks but the idea of taking 20-40min to get information that I could get in 3-5min of reading is hideous.
Thanks for keeping it real.

P.S. I prefer the conclusions at the end so I can evaluate whether I agree with each conclusion after seeing the data.

John Schwaller said:

Welcome back Roger….

Can you compare it to the ancient, but honorable, Canon 100-400.

Thanks, John

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

John,
While I’m always harping about not comparing Imatest results between brand, the D3x is a similar sensor to the 5DII. Given all the “you can’t absolutely compare” stuff, results would suggest the 80-400 is as good as the 100-400, which is pretty good indeed. Using Sigma 50-500 OS as a comparison tool, since those are available in both mounts, the new Nikon is better at the long end, about even from 80-200. I’ve felt the Canon and Sigma were about even or the Canon slightly better at 400.

So I think it’s safe to say the 80-400 AF-S is at least as good as the Canon 100-400, maybe a bit better. Of course, the Canon doesn’t mount to the D800 very well :-)

bald eagle said:

It is not quite 3013 yet!

Siegfried said:

March 3013? Kill all humans!

Welcome back, Roger!

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

I was using the Song Dynasty calendar.

Craig said:

Regarding the tripod collar, which is getting negative comments elsewhere, is it by any chance the same size as either the old 80-400 or the 300F4 AF-S? I have RRS collars for both those lenses…

Walter said:

Does Nikon (or anyone else) have a measurement of the T/stop on this thing? I know the thing everyone’s comparing it to is the 300/4, which has a full ten fewer elements.

Daniel said:

I have just received and quickly tested one of your copies and noticed a …noticeable jitter when focusing with VR on (normal and active).
Is this normal for this lens?
Note that I am comparing the VR system with that of the 70-200 2.8 VRII

Richard said:

Thanks for the article, Roger. Do you plan on writing a small review on the concurrently released AF-S 18-35mm/f3.5-4.5G lens. Comments on the web have been favorable, but there have not been any major reviews of this lens. It might be one of these “sleeper” lenses with very good optical properties that could give some of the more expensive siblings some competition.

Chris said:

Hi Roger, I am also interested to know how the 80-400mm lenses would stack up against a 70-200mm F2.8 + TC-20E III. I use a AFS 80-200mm F2.8 + TC-17E II which I am very happy with. My friend Steve has the old 80-400mm but wants to go AFS and is currently trying to figure out which is the best way to go. Primary concern is the resolution at the tele end. But a 70-200mm F2.8 would give him a F2.8 lens at times when he doesn’t need the reach. We are thinking the 70-200mm F2.8 VR II + TC20 III may give similar result to the 80-400 given that the 70-200 lenses tend to perform better than 400mm zooms giving us some head room to add a converter. What do you think?

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

OK, all the 70-200 and teleconverter questions I’ve been trying to avoid: I’ll set up and test it next week. I’ve been trying to avoid it because when I test at 400mm it’s a very time consuming set up. We have to rearrange the lab to get a 50 foot test run (we could do it shorter with a smaller target but I want as much distance as we can get). I’ll do it next week.

In the meantime here’s what I know. The 70-200 and 1.4x has higher resolution than the 80-400 AF-S does at 300, but just barely. It’s clearly sharper at 200mm with no TC.

I suspect the answer is going to be that it’s very close, but not quite as good at 400, because it was just barely better than the old one at 400. But let me retest to be certain.

Roger

Dave said:

Hi Roger,

What can one say but its a pleasure to read your refreshing takes on things…especially optics. I know it’s impossible to test every other known lens variable against the new Nikon 80-400 Af-s VR, but since the new lens only goes out to slightly beyond 385mm, there are two other lenses that I think should be thrown into the mix. The first is the relatively new Tamron 70-300 VC lens. It’s a cut above in optical performance most lenses in this price and focal length range and clearly I believe would give the new Nikon 80-400 AF-S a run for it’s money on the 70-300 focal length range. The other lens which by my testing and long time use might also be an interesting comparison would be the recently discontinued Sigma 100-300 f4 lens (with and without the Sigma 1.4, since you mentioned the 120-300 f2.8 and the 100-300 f4 isn’t far behind. Previous test reports has the Sigma 100-300f4 performing at a similar level to the 70-200 f2.8 VRI and II of Nikon but gets out to 300 without much of a drop in performance and without a TC. Any thoughts on these two comparisons?

Patrick said:

Hi Roger,

I’ve finally done some shooting with the AF-S 80-400 on my D800E. I’ve shot a lot with the 70-200VR2 + TC20E3 combo in the past as well.

At 400mm at infinity, the AF-S 80-400 is FAR BETTER. Far, far better than the 70-200+TC20 combo could ever do. The distant boats and building details (shooting across a lake) just pops.

My suspicion is for anything close, the 70-200+TC would be a clear winner. Since the 70-200VR2 is really designed to be superior at close distances.

it does make it very hard to test. what’s “far enough” for a 400mm lens?

Nqina Dlamini said:

Welcome back.
As usual great blog. I must say I also prefer reading than the video review.

bindeaw said:

Hi Roger, Could you compare zoom ring with 70-300VR? I just want to know which one is smoother.
Thank you so much.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

The 80-400 zoom has a bit more resistance, appropriate for a bigger lens, but is, I think, a bit smoother than the 70-300

Tracjt said:

Is the price likely to drop in the next 6 months? How often have recent high end lenses done this?

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Tracjt – Almost always there’s some drop. With Nikon lately there have sometimes been significant drops, although cameras more likely to have rapid discounts than lenses.

SoCal Dave said:

Would it be possible to get the same imatest data for the Nikon 200-400??? Wondering how much of a difference there is between the two!
Thank you.
Dave

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Dave, I’m afraid the 200-400 is too large for our Imatest set up. But the difference is clear and significant; it’s the difference between ‘good’ and ‘exceptional’.

Steve Bissell said:

A good friend just purchased the new AF-S 80-400 and left it with me for two days to test it against the current version of the 300 2.8. What I’m about to tell you all is not science fiction, but gods awsome truth. At first sight the resulting files shocked me. They were so snappy, so sharp, and so vividly colorfull that they even shamed the classic 300 2.8, which was absolutely fantastic in it’s own right. I went on to test both lenses with my TC 1.4 and TC 1.7, and with the TC 1.7 this was a 650mm lens. With both TC’s(not together) and at full aperature this lens was the sharpest I have ever seen! Now to really shake you up, I handheld every test shot(handhold a 650mm?) and every one was razor sharp and contrasty. This was only possible because the VR on this beauty is by far the most advanced I’ve ever seen or heard about. ROCK STEADY hand held at 650mm!! It seemed almost organic in that everytime I increased the magnification with the TC’s the VR would somehow respond to the increased unsteadiness and performed just as well as with much lesser magnification! I NEVER thought I’d see VR as advanced as this. My friends new 80-400 AF-S might well be one in a million, but if not, if this was a typical copy, I HAVE TO HAVE ONE! I’ts the single best lens in the world, when you consider that all you need is the TC’s , NO need of a tripod with this VR, and a wide zoom and your fully covered. I swear this is the sharpest lens I have ever seen!

Mac Walter said:

I feel the need to jump in on this discussion as people are asking if the 70-200 mm f2.8 with the the nikon 2x TC iii will be as good as the new 80-400 mm lens. I am a serious bird photographer and currently own both the 70-200 VR ii f 2.8 and the 300 mm f4 prime. I have both the 1.4x and 2.0x TCs. Having tried all the combinations that these lenses provide on my d7100 and d7000 I can say that to me the 2x TC combo with the 70-200 mm lens SUCKS. My old 300 mm f4 prime with the 1.4 x blows it away. There is simply no comparison. I was very disappointed when I found this out. The AF works fine but the image quality is awful. Ironically the 2x TC works quite well with the 300 mm giving me 600 mm, on my new d7100 body as it AF out to f8. Assuming that the new 80-400 mm is close to the 300 mm with the 1.4 x, I don’t think you will be happy with the 70-200 and 2x TCiii combo. I love the old 300 mm f4 prime, I just wish I had some zoom capability. It is sharp with excellent AF and bokah. The 70-200mm f2.8 by itself is superb also, just not long enough for birds.

Walter said:

I’m very impressed with this lens. I am a new Nikon shooter (used to shoot Olympus), and the 80-400AFS is sharp enough at 400/5.6 to provoke all sorts of moire and aliasing artifacts from bird feathers (even dark bird feathers at ISO 800+) on my D7100 with its no-AA sensor. This isn’t a problem (I can get rid of them in post and they don’t show up in print/display size), but it’s a testament to how good the optics are.

And it can track swallows in flight.

A Round said:

As of 4/5/14: Good review. Nikon just offered, for a short while, a price reduction of $400. All the good places to purchase stuff had it backordered (you could order and wait and get the lower price.) Now the price is back up. The demand for this lens is still too great for Nikon to lower the price.

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