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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

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

Kerry Pierce said:

As always, I enjoy reading your test results and commentary. I'd be very interested in knowing how the new AF-S 80-400 compares to the Sigma 120-300, optically.

I have both an old, non-OS 120-300 and the AF-D 80-400. That's why I'd like the comparison. Or, I'd be happy with just your thoughts on how it compares. My old Sigma doesn't do too bad for me, better than the old AF-D 80-400, in most cases.

thanks

Bruce Fichelson said:

By the way, as to use of the TC 14Aiii or other similar units, I'd recommend either cropping if you have at least a 24mpx sensor or getting a top DX body like the D7100 and taking advantage of the smaller angle of view. If you were desperate and only had the converter to get you close, then go ahead, but I would only use a TC 14Aiii with a super fine single focal length lens IMHO.

Bruce Fichelson said:

Find one that is Nikon refurbished. I did and got a new lens for $2100 delivered. Well worth it!!! And it is a USA lens. (Got mine very quickly from Roberts Camera. Cameta also gets Nikon refurbished equipment.) I love this lens. Loved the old one, but knew it had limits. This is fantastic!

Eric C said:

Great review and thanks very much, especially for posing the 3 lenses side by side. I have a Sigma Bigma OS. I kept thinking to upgrade to the newer Nikon 80-400 VR as I thought it is more compact (I was thinking the size of the old Nikon 80-400) until I saw your lenses image. Wow, the new lens is so big (I know how big the Bigma OS is).

My Bigma OS worked OK on my D7100. It got good shots here and there, but not consistently. Then recently I decided to try AF tuning on it. The AF tuning made my Bigma OS a new lens. It becomes very sharp and I get consistent good shots now.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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'.

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:

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.

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:

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

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.

Nqina Dlamini said:

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

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?

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