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

Published March 20, 2013

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

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in New Items
  • Dave

    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?

  • Roger Cicala

    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

  • Chris

    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?

  • Richard

    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.

  • Daniel

    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

  • Walter

    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.

  • Jon

    If anyone is interested-

    For reference:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/78697218@N08/sets/72157633055057995/

    Quick comparison:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/78697218@N08/sets/72157633059426466/

    Kids soccer on Saturday, nature on Sunday. Thanks for the rental!

  • 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…

  • Roger Cicala

    I was using the Song Dynasty calendar.

  • Siegfried

    March 3013? Kill all humans!

    Welcome back, Roger!

  • bald eagle

    It is not quite 3013 yet!

  • Roger Cicala

    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 🙂

  • John Schwaller

    Welcome back Roger….

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

    Thanks, John

  • SoulNibbler

    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.

  • 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.

  • derek

    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.

  • Brian

    ^^^ 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?

  • Lynn

    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.

  • Abhijit K

    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?

  • Steve

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

  • Tazqa

    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.

  • Jay

    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?

  • Dirk M

    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.

  • Roger Cicala

    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

  • Jmiguez

    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

  • Cole Stipovich

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

  • 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.

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

    “For rich doctors on Safari”

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

  • gigi

    fantastic, so its a “will buy it”

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